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Hilltoppers defeat 49ers 45-13 in rainy homecoming blowout

Brittany Fisher
WKU freshman wide receiver Dakota Thomas (15) celebrates after freshman running back Noah Whittington (20) scores during WKU’s 45-13 win over the Charlotte 49ers at Houchens-Smith Stadium on Oct. 30, 2021

The Hilltoppers (4-4, 3-1 C-USA) defeated the Charlotte 49ers (4-4, 2-2 C-USA) 45-13 on a wet and chilly homecoming weekend in front of a crowd of 16,763 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

The win was the third in a row for WKU and the program has now clawed back to a .500 record, two wins away from bowl eligibility with four games left on the schedule.

“Really proud of our football team, we’ve been talking all year about that complete game, really felt like we got close to that tonight,” head coach Tyson Helton said following the win. “A couple things we could have cleaned up, but just an outstanding effort by everyone on the team.” 

WKU graduate gunslinger Bailey Zappe threw for 392 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions on 33-of-46 passing along with one rushing score. Four different Hilltoppers were on the receiving end of Zappe’s touchdown passes.

Charlotte redshirt sophomore quarterback James Foster threw for 124 yards on 13-of-25 passing in his first collegiate start, stepping in for regular starter Chris Reynolds who was sidelined with a hand injury. Foster scored a touchdown on his feet but did not score through the air.

“Right before the game we found out kind of like everybody else did that [Foster] was going to be out there,” Helton said. “Kind of suspected that might happen just because of the injuries [Charlotte] had last week, so we had planned all week for that potential. Really the game plan didn’t change, just because they’re similar quarterbacks, they can both run, they’re quality throwers, so not a lot of change there. But I thought the young man did a nice job tonight.”

Charlotte depended heavily on its running back tandem of Calvin Camp and Shadrick Byrd, with the pair combining for 18 carries for 118 yards. 

WKU’s Noah Whittington led the Hilltoppers’ ground attack, turning 10 carries into 64 yards for a score. Wide receiver Jerreth Sterns was contained better than usual but still hauled in 10 receptions for 87 yards and six points.


WKU won the coin toss and elected to defer. 

Charlotte went three-and-out to start its opening possession. Junior wideout Jerreth Sterns returned a short punt to the 49er’s 47-yard line. Graduate halfback Adam Cofield started the game with a 10-yard run for the Hilltoppers. 

WKU marched into the redzone before Zappe tossed an 11-yard touchdown to junior wide receiver Daewood Davis for WKU’s first opening drive touchdown of 2021.

“It was good to get an early touchdown, thought we had good momentum really the whole first half,” Helton said. “[The] offense had a good solid night, I haven’t seen the stats yet but [we] had control of the ball all night and did a good job.”

Charlotte recovered from its opening drive, storming down into WKU territory after Foster’s 15-yard run. The 49ers entered the redzone but couldn’t convert for six points. Senior kicker Jonathan Cruz nailed a 37-yard field goal to cut the lead to 7-3 with 6:39 left in the first quarter of play. 

“I was very proud of our defense again,” Helton said. “The game ball went to [defensive coordinator Maurice Crum] for the outstanding job that his staff did and our defensive team does.”

WKU’s drive started with a high snap over Zappe’s head, losing 17 yards before Zappe overshot his receiver in the middle field to be picked off by redshirt sophomore Marcus Robitaille at the Charlotte 48-yard line. 

WKU’s defense got a turnover of its own on the next possession. Redshirt sophomore Demetrius Cain jumped a route on the WKU sideline on fourth down, intercepting Foster’s pass. On the next play, Zappe completed a 45-yard bomb to freshman Malachi Corley. 

“When the receiver is going off the ball, you know he’s gonna run an option route,” Cain said. “We practice that every day of practice. It was just film work and trusting my instincts.”

The 49ers helped the Hilltoppers down the field with two pass interference calls, putting the ball on the one-yard line. Zappe took a read-option himself and walked into the end zone to put WKU up 14-3 with 1:21 left in the first quarter of play. 

Charlotte drove near midfield before Victor Tucker fumbled on the WKU logo and Jaden Hunter recovered it for the Hilltoppers at midfield.  

“I thought the first part of the season we hit a rough patch there, we played some really good competition,” Helton said. “Really tested our defense, but it also made us reevaluate, ‘how do we play our best defense’. I think that was the good that came out of that, [it] made us have to reevaluate where we were defensively.”


WKU took advantage of the short field. Zappe dinked-and-dunked down the field before finding junior wideout Mitchell Tinsley boxing out a Charlotte cornerback in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown, putting WKU up 21-3. 

“I think we felt like their back end was the weak part of their defense,” Tinsley said. “But on that play, Bailey just gave me a great ball, he back-shouldered it and I just tried to get it into the end zone.”

Foster and his troops ended up near midfield on their next possession before Foster completed a 54-yard pass to junior Shadrick Byrd out of the backfield on a third-and-five. Foster scampered in for the score two plays later for a one-yard touchdown, cutting WKU’s lead to 21-10 with 9:40 left in the first half. 

Zappe and the Hilltopper offense continued firing on all cylinders, getting the ball past midfield with ease. The Charlotte pass rush forced Zappe out of the pocket, leading to him missing a wide-open Tinsley for what would have been a touchdown on a third-and-eight. 

WKU went for it on fourth down and Corley dropped a first-down reception that bounced into the hands of Charlotte linebacker Justin Whisenhunt for Zappe’s second interception on the day. 

“Stuff happens, I make mistakes throughout every game,” Zappe said. “After that play, I went up to [Corley] and I was like, ‘look, the next time I see you I’ll throw you the ball without any doubt’. I have 100% confidence in all these guys no matter who it is.”

On the next play, redshirt senior running back Calvin Camp gashed the WKU defense for a 39-yard run to enter WKU territory. The Hilltopper defense held strong, forcing a 56-yard field goal. Cruz barely got the kick up over the crossbar, cutting the lead to 21-13 with 3:06 left in the first half. 

The Hilltoppers quickly moved the ball through the air to creep up near the redzone. Sterns came up with an incredible catch with a 49er defender draped all over him for a 21-yard touchdown reception with 1:27 left in the half. 


WKU attempted to score before the break, forcing a three-and-out and using all of its timeouts. Charlotte freshman punter Bailey Rice had other plans, dribbling a punt at the WKU one-yard line. WKU led 28-13 at the end of the first half. 


WKU’s opening possession after the break ended with a punt. Charlotte took over at its own 12-yard line of its opening possession. Foster got the drive moving with an 11-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Grant DuBose. 

The 49ers spread the wealth to get into Hilltopper territory before WKU forced Charlotte into a fourth-and-two. Junior defensive tackle Darius Shipp tipped Foster’s pass at the line of scrimmage, forcing a turnover on downs to end a seven-and-half minute drive.  

The Hilltoppers took advantage of the short field. A Charlotte pass interference penalty got the ball moving for WKU. The next play, Zappe hit Tinsley for a 28-yard completion. Zappe found redshirt freshman Dalvin Smith for a nine-yard touchdown, extending the lead to 35-13 with 2:04 left in the third quarter of play. 

Charlotte went three-and-out before trying a fake punt on a fourth-and-eight in its own territory. WKU was ready for it, stopping its opponents a couple yards short. 


Zappe found junior wideout Craig Burt Jr. to get the ball to the 10-yard line. The Hilltoppers cost themselves a touchdown with drops and a holding penalty forced them into a field goal. Redshirt sophomore kicker Brayden Narveson hits a 35-yard field goal to put the lead at 38-13 with 12:28 left in the game.

Charlotte punted again after Shipp and redshirt junior Marcus Braggs sacked Foster on third down. Noah Whittington took over on the next drive, busting off 22 and 20-yard runs to get the ball inside the redzone. 

Zappe found freshman wide receiver Dakota Thomas to get down to the one-yard line before Whittington capped off his great drive with a one-yard touchdown run with 5:09 left in the game, extending WKU’s lead to 45-13.

Charlotte failed to get anything going on its final drive, reaching midfield before running out of downs. WKU kneeled out the rest of the clock to secure the blowout.

WKU will look to carry its momentum into its matchup with 100 Miles of Hate rival Middle Tennessee on Saturday, Nov. 6. The Blue Raiders will come to town for a 2:30 p.m. CT kickoff.

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.

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