WKU clinches bowl berth, extends winning streak with 42-21 blowout of Rice

WKU+Hilltoppers+freshman+wide+receiver+Josh+Sterns+%289%29+nearly+catches+a+touchdown+pass+during+the+Saturday+game+against+MTSU+at+Feix+Field+on+November+6%2C+2021.

Jacob Latimer

WKU Hilltoppers freshman wide receiver Josh Sterns (9) nearly catches a touchdown pass during the Saturday game against MTSU at Feix Field on November 6, 2021.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU (6-4, 5-1 C-USA) became bowl eligible by winning its fifth consecutive game 42-21 against the Rice Owls (3-7, 2-4 C-USA) Saturday afternoon in Houston, Texas. 

Along with locking up a trip to a bowl, the Hilltoppers now hold sole possession of first place in the Conference USA East after UAB defeated Marshall 21-14 later on in the day.

“It’s just good to keep winning more than anything,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “We have goals ahead of us, and this was another stop along the way. Just really proud of our team and what we were able to do today. It’s great to be bowl eligible, but we have some more goals that we want to attain. We need to keep on going.” 

WKU graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe tossed for 482 yards and five touchdowns with one interception, completing 81% of his passes and throwing only one incompletion the entire second half. It was his first game back in Houston since transferring to the Hill from Houston Baptist University.

“It was nice to come back,” Zappe said. I haven’t been to Texas since we had that summer break before we came back for June session. … Probably 50 [or] 60 people out there, I’m about to be bombarded by little kids [and] everything. So, it’s nice to see all my family there that I haven’t seen in probably over a year.”     

Rice graduate signal-caller Jack Constantine completed 56% of his passes for 380 yards with one touchdown and a staggering four interceptions.

WKU junior wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley caught seven passes for 198 yards and two scores.

“I just wanted to make plays when I got the opportunity,” Tinsley said. “That’s all I wanted to do.” 

Rice redshirt sophomore wideout August Pitre III caught nine passes for 133 yards.  

WKU redshirt senior cornerback Omari Alexander came away with two interceptions on the afternoon, his first two of the season. 

Q1 

WKU won the coin toss and elected to receive. 

WKU moved quickly on its opening possession. Zappe connected on his first five passes, moving the ball down to the Rice eight-yard line before disaster struck. Zappe fumbled the snap, then lofted the ball into double coverage. Rice senior linebacker Naeem Smith intercepted the pass in the end zone and returned it out to the Rice 15-yard line. 

The Owls used that momentum to their advantage, driving into WKU territory in just four plays. Constantine connected with Jake Bailey, converting a third-and-four, before Ari Boussard converted another third down on the ground. 

Constantine found an open Pitre on third-and-10 for 23 yards. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Beanie Bishop punched the ball out at the WKU three-yard line and senior safety Antwon Kincade recovered, giving the ball to the Hilltoppers. 

“It was huge, because we get all the way down there, you turn the ball over,” Helton said. “It was a really poor decision by Bailey. He’s going to say ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ Then they drive it all the way down and, the defense to get the turnover, allows you again to take a deep breath and say ‘let’s get going’.” 

The Hilltoppers picked up the tempo on the next drive. Zappe hit junior wideout Daewood Davis for 17 and 22 yards on consecutive plays before finding junior Jerreth Sterns for 33 yards, moving the ball near the 10-yard line. 

Freshman halfback Kye Robichaux capped off the seven-play, 97-yard drive in just three minutes with a two-yard rushing touchdown, the first of his collegiate career. WKU led 7-0 with 2:56 left in the first quarter. 

Rice started back up in its own territory. Boussard gave them room with a 10-yard run before Constantine found graduate wide receiver Cedric Patterson III for 19 yards to get the ball near midfield. The WKU defense tightened up, forcing a fourth-and-three at the end of the first quarter of play.

Q2 

Junior defensive tackle Darius Shipp got his hands up to tip a quick pass from Constantine, forcing a turnover on downs. The game came to a screeching halt on the next two possessions as both teams went three-and-out. 

“We knew that them running the ball was going to be their key to success,” Shipp said. “But if we stopped the run, we didn’t believe that they could throw the ball on us.”

The Hilltoppers took advantage of a short field after a 14-yard punt. WKU utilized the ground attack before Zappe hit Robichaux on a wheel route out of the backfield for a 13-yard touchdown, extending the WKU lead to 14-0. 

The Owls punted on their next possession, leading to a two-play Hilltopper drive. Zappe hit Tinsley for a 65-yard touchdown pass.

Two plays later, redshirt junior cornerback Dominique Bradshaw picked off Constantine after Pitre dropped a would-be first down. The WKU offense made the most of the opportunity with a Zappe seven-yard touchdown to Dalvin Smith. WKU led 28-0 with 6:19. 

“We strive to force turnovers because we know if we get the ball to the offense more times than they originally would have it, that’s more points for us,” Shipp said. “That’s just always been the biggest key for us, trying to force turnovers.”      

Rice got some help on its next possession with a facemask and pass interference calls to help get the ball down near the redzone. A holding penalty on third-and-one neglected a tough 12-yard touchdown run by Boussard. 

The next play, Constantine was intercepted by redshirt sophomore cornerback Kahlef Hailassie in the end zone. 

“I feel like everything is just coming together,” Hailassie said. “We’re going to keep getting them.”  

He returned it to the WKU two-yard line with 2:39 left in the first half. Both teams ran the clock down to halftime. 

Q3 

Rice went three-and-out after the break. Zappe dumped the ball off to Robichaux on a swing pass before making a man miss. Sophomore safety Kirk Lockhart popped the ball out of Robichaux’s hands and freshman Gabe Taylor recovered, giving the ball back to the Owls.

The Owls couldn’t convert the turnover into points after junior linebacker Jaden Hunter sacked Constantine on a third-and-seven, forcing a punt. WKU went three-and-out on its next possession. 

“When you have a really good defense, it shouldn’t really matter if you put the ones or twos in, there shouldn’t be any drop-off,” Shipp said. “I feel like, throughout the season we’ve all progressively gotten better, and that’s what’s allowed us to rotate the way we do and successfully do the same thing as if the ones, the twos or the threes are in.”

Constantine led his troops inside Hilltopper territory with 17 and 19-yard completions. He found Pitre to get the ball down just short of the redzone. Constantine and the Rice offense finally found pay dirt with a tip-toe catch in the back of the end zone by Patterson, cutting the WKU lead to 28-7 with 3:16 left in the third quarter. 

WKU ran seven consecutive pass plays, getting the ball down to the Rice 24-yard line. On a third-and-seven, Zappe dumped the ball off to graduate running back Adam Cofield for 12 yards, ending the penultimate quarter of play.  

Q4

Zappe extended the Hilltoppers’ lead to 35-7 on a nine-yard touchdown pass to Tinsley on the first play of the fourth quarter. 

Redshirt junior wideout Cameron Montgomery helped kick-start the Owls’ drive, converting a third-and-11 after a dump off pass from Constantine. Constantine found Pitre for 27 yards before finding Bailey for 23 yards on a third-and-10. Freshman Khalan Griffin capped off the possession with a physical seven-yard touchdown run. WKU led 35-14. 

 WKU went three-and-out, but redshirt senior John Haggerty III’s punt pinned Rice back at its own 12-yard line. Two plays later, Jake Constantine threw his third interception of the day to cornerback Omari Alexander after miscommunication with his receiver.

Zappe lasered a tight-window throw to redshirt sophomore tight end Joey Beljan a few plays later, extending WKU’s lead to 42-14. On the first play on the Owls next possession, Constantine threw another interception to Alexander.  

Chance McDonald made his first appearance of the season in relief for Zappe. McDonald’s first drive didn’t go as planned. He threw an interception to Lockhart, giving the ball to Rice. Rice dinked-and-dunked down into the redzone before failing on a fourth down. 

WKU was forced to punt its next possession. The Owls drove down to the WKU five-yard line before redshirt sophomore Juma Otoviano rushed for a two-yard score. WKU ran out of the clock, securing a 42-21 victory, its fifth straight, and bowl eligibility.  

“They’re men of character,” Helton said. “They just go out and compete, and they don’t worry about things that are not in their control. They just go out there on the field and try to win football games. I knew once we got that rough patch out of the way there, I knew we could go on a roll. Our team knew that, and we got a big one coming up again this week.”     

Up next, WKU hosts the Florida Atlantic Owls (5-5, 3-3 C-USA) in Houchens-Smith Stadium Saturday, Nov. 20  at 11:00 a.m. CT. 

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