Sparky Notes: This team has hit its stride

Sparky Notes is football reporter Wyatt Sparkman’s weekly column that serves to dissect WKU Football’s most recent game.


Allie Hendricks

WKU defensive back Dominique Bradshaw (9) and A.J. Braithwaite, Jr. tackle a Charlotte 49ers players during the game at L.T. Smith Stadium on Oct. 30, 2021.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU played its most complete game of 2021 on Saturday afternoon, taking down the Charlotte 49ers in a dominant 45-13 homecoming win. WKU is back to .500 for the first time since Sept. 25 and is riding a three-game win streak. What has changed for the Hilltoppers in the past three weeks?    

The Growth of Crum 

WKU’s improvements on defense over the last three weeks starts with defensive coordinator Maurice Crum. The Hilltopper defense has allowed its lowest point total each of the past three games. 

Turnovers have been a key part of this defense’s success. WKU has created seven turnovers in its last four games compared to its first four games of the year where the defense created just three. 

Turnovers aren’t the only defensive statistic on the rise. WKU recorded just five sacks across the first five games of the season but has since tripled that number, putting up 15 in just the past three weeks. This rapid increase began when the offense started building early leads. The defense has recorded 14 sacks when the Hilltoppers have the lead compared to just six when WKU is fighting from behind.

Crum and the defense finally look like they have settled in and adjusted to the team’s new offensive tempo.

Charlotte was set up with a fourth-and-four at WKU’s 32-yard line in the first quarter after WKU graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe threw an interception on the previous drive. A 49er wideout ran an option route, reading the defender on which way to cut. Redshirt senior linebacker Demetrius Cain took away the inside option and forced the receiver to go outside, jumping the route for an interception. The move was something a veteran player only does once he’s confident in a new system. 

This defense has been making more and more such plays each of the past three weeks.  

The air raid is not slowing down

The offense hit a couple of bumps on the road Saturday, but it didn’t slow its high-octane tempo. Zappe finished the day with 393 yards and four touchdowns. He has thrown for 350-plus yards in every game this season, while being one of three quarterbacks in the nation to complete 70% or more of their passes with 250 or more attempts. 

Zappe’s best throw of the day was on the first touchdown of the game. The gunslinger lofted up a pass from the left hash mark with pressure in his face to the right backside pylon, directly into the hands of junior wide receiver Daewood Davis.

Turnovers have been his main weakness all year. He reminds me of Sam Darnold, another quarterback WKU head coach Tyson Helton coached when he was at USC.

Zappe has had a turnover in all but two games this season, accounting for seven turnovers in total. Zappe is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation but these slip-ups are costly.

Zappe has been stellar all season and is having one of the best years a Hilltopper quarterback has ever had, but going up against Middle Tennessee State, the team that has forced the most turnovers in the nation this year (25), you can’t be reckless with the football. 

WKU hosts its 100 Miles of Hate Rival MTSU on Saturday, Nov. 6 at 2:30 p.m. CT.

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