WKU breaks interception record, smothers MTSU with seven turnovers in 48-21 win


Jacob Latimer

WKU Hilltoppers junior wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley (5) runs in for a touchdown during the game against MTSU at Houchens-Smith Stadium on November 6, 2021.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU (5-4, 4-1 C-USA) welcomed the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (4-5, 2-3 C-USA) to Houchens-Smith Stadium on Saturday for another chapter of the 100 Miles of Hate rivalry. WKU trounced MTSU 48-21, blowing out its Tennessee rivals and rewriting its own history books in front of a crowd of 15,022.

The Blue Raiders came into the match leading the nation in turnovers, but WKU beat them at their own game.

“We kind of flipped the script on them,” head coach Tyson Helton said. “Going into this game, that’s all we talked about all week. They’re leading the country in creating turnovers and we go out there, I think we got seven, that was a fantastic job by our defense.”

WKU’s defense recorded seven turnovers throughout the evening, six coming from interceptions, a new FBS record for the program. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Beanie Bishop had a pair of interceptions and took one back to the house for six points. The Hilltoppers scored 31 points off of their turnovers. 

“Beanie Bishop got the game ball tonight, two interceptions and a touchdown,” Helton said. “We were excited for him. I could have given it to a lot of people, but the team wanted him to have it as well. So I was really proud of him.”

“God blessed me and put me in those situations to show what I’m capable of,” Bishop said. “Once I got the ball, I just showed how much of an athlete I am.”

WKU junior wideout Jerreth Sterns caught 11 passes for 110 yards to break WKU’s single-season reception record, previously held by Taywan Taylor for his 98 catches in 2016. He finished the game with 104 total receptions on the year with three games remaining on the schedule. 

“Players make plays,” Helton said. “Some guys have the ‘It’ factor, it’s not about being the biggest guy, it’s about being a playmaker. When the lights turn on, [Jerreth] shows up and he balls out and that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Graduate gunslinger Bailey Zappe tossed for 281 yards and four touchdowns and ran in for a score as well. He completed 58% of his passes, his lowest completion percentage of the season, but it didn’t matter as the defense put the game away.

“Coach Helton, coach Kittley on our side, they’re the two masterminds,” Zappe said. “We give all the credit to those guys, they put us in the right positions. It’s just up to us to make the plays and we were able to do that a lot tonight.”

Freshman quarterback Nicholas Vattiato made his first collegiate start for the Blue Raiders, replacing the injured Chase Cunningham. He went 24-of-41 for 205 yards, two scores and five interceptions, prompting the entrance of third-string quarterback Mike DiLiello, who threw a pick of his own. 


WKU won the coin toss and elected to defer. 

MTSU picked two early third downs before Vattiato made an early splash, hitting sophomore wideout DJ England-Chisolm for a 45-yard touchdown across the middle of the field to open up the game’s scoring. 

WKU responded quickly, traversing 68 yards in seven plays, only taking off 1:22 of game time on its first possession. Zappe hit junior wide receiver Daewood Davis for a 17-yard touchdown to cap off the drive and tie the game at 7-7 with 10:21 left in the first quarter. Both sides went three-and-out on their next possessions. 

Vattiato tried to scramble for a first down before getting lit up by junior linebacker Will Ignont. The next play, Vattiato threw an interception to redshirt sophomore Kahlef Hailassie, the first pick of his career, who returned it to the MTSU 19-yard line. The Hilltoppers struck two plays later with a five-yard touchdown pass from Zappe to freshman Malachi Corley, giving WKU a 14-7 lead. 

“We started playing with a lot of confidence after a couple of turnovers,” Helton said. “When you have momentum in your favor, plays just keep rolling for you and those plays kept coming. You’ve got to do a great job of creating that too, and again, our defense coordinator, coach Crum and the defensive staff did a fantastic job of creating those turnovers for us.” 

Both teams would go three-and-out once again before Vattiato made his second mistake of the day. He threw his second interception after a miscommunication with his receiver. Bishop returned the pick to the house, putting the Hilltoppers up 21-7 with 2:07 left in the first quarter. 

“When I cut in and then I came back out [I saw] a lot of red jerseys,” Bishop said. “Just break one tackle, I know I can least make one man miss, at least every time. So after that I just [saw] a crowd of red and just ran towards it.”

The Blue Raider offense marched into WKU territory with a mix of the run and pass before the first quarter drew to a close.


An illegal formation penalty ruined the momentum of the Blue Raider’s promising drive. WKU drew up a blitz on fourth-and-10, forcing Vattiato’s third interception of the day to redshirt junior Jaden Hunter. Zappe and the offense didn’t convert the turnover for a score, turning the ball over on downs near midfield. 

Vattiato and the Blue Raider offense took advantage of the short field. Vattiato found a hole in the WKU coverage and hit Yusuf Ali for a 36-yard touchdown pass, cutting the WKU lead to 21-14 with 9:08 left in the first half. 

Sterns broke WKU’s single-season reception record with his 99th catch of the season on the following drive. 

“It means a lot, but I can’t do it without Bailey [Zappe] over here,” Sterns said. “…I wasn’t really thinking about it at that point in the game, going into the game I knew I was close but at that point I wasn’t really thinking about it.”

Two MTSU pass interference calls helped WKU get down the field. The Hilltoppers had to settle for a 35-yard Brayden Narveson field goal after Zappe barely overthrew freshman Josh Sterns. WKU led 24-14.

“It wasn’t a great stat night for us but we did what we needed to do,” Helton said. “Bailey [Zappe], I’ll tell you what, my hat’s off to Middle Tennessee. Their defense – I thought they gave us the hardest looks we’ve seen all year and they played us well, and I thought Bailey handled that well though.”

The Hilltoppers forced its fourth interception of the day on the next drive. Senior Jeremy Darvin hit Vattiato as he threw it and Bishop came down with his second pick of the day, returning it to the MTSU 10-yard line. Two plays later, Zappe hit junior Mitchell Tinsley for a 10-yard touchdown, giving the Hilltoppers a 31-14 lead with 3:35 left in the first half. 

“We have a bunch of guys that can get to that pass rusher both inside and out,” Darvin said. “Anytime we get that opportunity we all just cherish them and we feed on it – pass rushing and coverage go hand-in-hand so it was good to see both the front end and back end have success today.”

Both offenses didn’t muster anything for the rest of the half, gaining two first downs in total. WKU led 31-14 at the break.


Zappe and the air raid offense got back on track on the opening drive of the second half. Zappe converted two third downs to Jerreth Sterns before finding Davis for a 28-yard touchdown. WKU led 38-14 with 11:21 left in the third quarter.    

MTSU went with a new signal-caller Mike DiLiello to start the second half but he found the same results. Marte Pettaway fumbled and Hunter pounced on the ball, giving the ball back to the Hilltoppers. Zappe made quick work after the turnover, converting a third-and-13 to Tinsley for 28 yards before scrambling for an eight-yard touchdown run to put WKU up 45-14. 

DiLiello turned the ball over again, throwing an interception to redshirt senior Demetrius Cain. WKU went three-and-out but settled for a 43-yard field goal from Narveson, extending the WKU lead to 48-14. 

Vattiatto came back on the field for the Blue Raiders and put up his fifth interception of the day. He took a deep shot to the end zone after driving the ball past midfield, and it was picked off by Davion Williams. 

WKU’s air raid attack didn’t slow down as Zappe converted two third downs to Josh Sterns before the third quarter ended.


The Hilltopper drive stalled out as the Blue Raiders forced their first punt of the second half. Freshman Jaylin Layne returned the punt 68 yards, setting up freshman Frank Peasant’s first-ever collegiate touchdown from five yards out. MTSU still trailed 48-21.

MTSU forced a WKU three-and-out, leading to one of its best possessions of the game. Vattiato led his troops down to the WKU 22-yard line but failed on fourth-and-three. 

Neither side scored for the remainder of the night and WKU easily wrapped up its third victory in a row against MTSU and fourth consecutive win overall. 

The Hilltoppers will hit the road to visit the Rice Owls in Houston on Saturday, Nov. 13.

“At the end of the day, I think our team’s in a good place,” Helton said. “We got to go back on the road and we’re gonna have a tough opponent in Rice, so we’ve got to go out there and make it happen again.”

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