Sparky Notes: Defense building incredible story arc, Zappe and Sterns still best in the nation

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


Jacob Latimer

WKU Hilltoppers sophomore defensive backs Kahlef Hailassie (12) and Beanie Bishop (21) celebrate after returning it to the house during the MTSU game.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU Football continued its dominant month with a 48-21 win over its 100 Miles of Hate rival Middle Tennessee on Saturday afternoon. WKU’s season has been a roller coaster ride to say the least, but the Hilltoppers have never looked better. 

The defense’s character development

The Hilltopper defense is in the midst of a classic coming-of-age story. These types of stories start with the main character lost, not knowing their place in the world. Throughout the story, the main character experiences major growth as they find out who they are. 

WKU’s former defensive coordinator Clayton White left the Hill after the 2020 season for a position with South Carolina. The program decided to look in-staff to find a new DC, hiring Maurice Crum to replace White. This was the 35-year-old’s first defensive coordinator gig. 

Crum and his troops got off to a very rocky start in their first five games of the season. His defense was giving up 38.4 points per game, seventh-worst in the nation through the first five weeks of 2021. WKU was giving up 43 points per game to FBS opponents during that stretch. 

WKU’s defense was allowing 480 yards per game, eighth-worst in the nation. The defense had given up a staggering 500 yards in three consecutive contests. WKU never gave up more than 500 yards in a single game in 2020 under White. 

The pass rush only had five sacks on the season, fourth-worst in the nation at the time, while the defense as a whole had only created five turnovers up to that point. 

The second act of this story began in WKU’s sixth game of 2021, an away matchup against Old Dominion. The defense held the Monarchs to 20 points, the lowest allowed total of the season at the time, while forcing three turnovers and matching its season total in sacks. 

Since that day, the defense has given up just 18 points per game, a far cry better than its numbers from a month ago. Crum’s defense is giving up 351 yards per game and has forced an incredible 14 turnovers in its last four matchups. Another impressive statistic the defense has compiled over the past month is 16 sacks in four conference contests. 

This defense reached its peak this past Saturday against MTSU, forcing a program FBS-era record six interceptions, seven turnovers in all, and holding the Blue Raiders to just 21 points.

Redshirt sophomore cornerback Beanie Bishop had two interceptions and returned one for a touchdown, WKU’s first defensive score of the season. WKU scored 31 points off those seven turnovers. 

WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe has dominated the headlines this fall, but the defense has provided its own incredible story arc. Just keep in mind that not every sports story has a happy ending.

Zappe, Sterns still the best duo in the nation

WKU junior wideout Jerreth Sterns has been nothing less than outstanding this year. He is best in the nation with 104 receptions, 16 more than second place. He also tied for a nation-leading 11 touchdown receptions and second in the nation in total yards with 1,276. 

Sterns is on pace to haul in 161 catches this season, a new FBS record, if WKU reaches the Conference USA Championship and a bowl game. He has recorded six consecutive games with 10 or more receptions and seven games putting up 100 or more yards of offense. He was added to the 2021 Biletnikoff Award Watch List on Oct. 6. 

To further illustrate how good he’s been in just nine games this fall, Sterns recorded 1,971 yards and 18 touchdowns throughout his entire career at Houston Baptist University. He is on track to eclipse his yard total in almost half as many games.

It also helps that Sterns is being targeted by one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, even if national media hasn’t quite accepted that yet.

Bailey Zappe continues to lead the country in total yards and touchdowns and was named a Davey O’Brien Award semifinalist on Tuesday, an honor given to the best quarterback in college football. 

Despite his gaudy numbers and eye-catching play, Zappe does not appear on CBS Sports’ 2022 NFL Draft Prospect rankings. It remains to be seen when the rest of the nation will catch up to the Zappe hype train.

Zappe, Sterns and offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, all former Houston Baptist Huskies, will return to Houston this Saturday to play the Rice Owls at 1 p.m. CT.

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