Hilltoppers blow out FAU 52-17 on senior day for sixth consecutive win 

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Marshall C. Canupp

Hilltoppers’ junior wide receiver Daewood Davis (18) attempts a touchdown catch as FAU Owls’ freshman cornerback Jayden Williams (22) interferes with the play during their matchup on Nov. 20, 2021.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

The WKU football program (7-4, 6-1 C-USA) blew out the Florida Atlantic Owls (5-6, 3-4 C-USA) by a score of 52-17 on Saturday afternoon, the Hilltoppers’ 11th senior day victory in a row.

“Just a great team win today,” head coach Tyson Helton said. “I was really proud for all our seniors, this being their last home game, just a great way to go out for those guys at home – just gotta keep rolling, keep going, but really good win, really good team effort, a lot of big plays out there today.”

The win marks the first time the Hilltoppers have defeated the Owls since 2016. FAU came into the game riding a four-game win streak in the series between the two.

The Hilltoppers control their own destiny in Conference USA’s East Division. A Marshall win on Saturday means WKU’s season finale next week is for the divisional title, but a loss from the Herd hands the belt to the red and white.

“It feels great to be able to control your own destiny, not having to worry about, ‘what is this team doing?’ Or, ‘how is that game going’,” redshirt sophomore cornerback Beanie Bishop said. “You’re able to just play free, when you control it, only you can only hurt yourself. So, it feels great.”

WKU graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe completed 80% of his passes for 470 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions in his final regular season game at Houchens-Smith Stadium. His 48 touchdowns continues to lead the nation.

“We had some hiccups and then we had three turnovers, I decided though two picks, some stuff that we’ll clean up tomorrow and into the next week,” Zappe said. “[We’ll] go against Marshall and duke it out against those guys.”

FAU graduate quarterback N’Kosi Perry tossed for 213 yards and one score with two interceptions, completing 68% of his passes. 

WKU junior wide receiver Jerreth Sterns caught 12 passes for 143 yards and a score, while his teammate, junior wideout Mitchell Tinsley, caught nine passes for 164 yards and two scores of his own. 

“When you have an outside receiver that’s a threat like that, it just makes it really hard to stop an inside receiver. Pick your poison,” Sterns said. “Who do you want to stop. You want to stop me? [Tinsley] is gonna make it a little crazy. If you want to stop [Tinsley], I’m gonna go crazy.”

FAU redshirt sophomore safety Teja Young had a pick-six on Bailey Zappe in the second quarter. 

WKU senior defensive end DeAngelo Malone broke WKU’s career all-time sack record in the third quarter of the game with his 30.5th sack. The record was previously held by Sherrod Coates, who set it back in 2002. 

Q1 

FAU marched into WKU territory on its first possession, but a low pass from Perry resulted in a fourth down and punt. WKU took over at its own 13-yard line. The Hilloppers backed up before the drive started because of a false start. 

The penalty didn’t slow Zappe and his troops down. Zappe shredded the Owls defense, going 5-for-5 for 91 yards before tossing a one-yard touchdown to Sterns on a touch pass. 

FAU’s next drive was helped out by WKU penalties. An unsportsmanlike conduct flag after the touchdown and a kickoff that went out-of-bounds gave the Owls great field position at midfield. A facemask and pass interference call helped Perry and his troops get near the redzone. 

Perry converted a third-and-two with a seven-yard completion to redshirt junior wideout Brandon Robinson, getting the ball down to the WKU three-yard line. A five-yard loss on a jet sweep followed by a fumbled snap forced a 35-yard field goal. FAU freshman kicker Morgan Saurez nailed the attempt, cutting the WKU lead to 7-3 with 5:41 left in the first quarter. 

Jakairi Moses returned the ensuing kickoff 37 yards to midfield. Zappe and the WKU offense didn’t miss a beat, marching into the redzone in two plays. Zappe lasered in an eight-yard touchdown pass to freshman wideout Malachi Corley, capping off the three-play drive. 

FAU couldn’t answer the Hilltoppers’ onslaught, punting after five plays. Zappe finally threw an incompletion on his 11th pass attempt. Zappe converted a third-and-10 to Mitchell Tinsley before finding Tinsley again on the next play for 25 yards, getting down near the redzone as the first quarter came to a close. 

Q2 

Three plays into the second quarter, Zappe dumped the pigskin off to redshirt sophomore tight end Joey Beljan for a three-yard touchdown, giving WKU a 21-3 lead. Perry got the Owls moving on their next possession, converting a third-and-10 before finding redshirt senior running back James Charles wide-open for 45 yards.

An offensive pass interference pushed FAU back and halted the drive. WKU redshirt sophomore cornerback Kahlef Hailassie broke up Perry’s pass on fourth down, ending another promising FAU possession. 

WKU marched into FAU territory quickly on three plays. On a third-and-seven, Zappe made his first mistake of the game. FAU’s Young jumped his pass and took the interception back for six points. WKU led 28-10 with 7:58 left in the first half. 

Zappe bounced back after the error, moving the ball down the field with ease before graduate halfback Adam Cofield picked up a third-and-one on the ground. Zappe hit a wide-open Tinsley for 39 yards before dumping a pass off to Corley. Corley made multiple FAU defenders miss on his way to a three-yard touchdown. 

A facemask call on the touchdown put the ensuing kickoff at midfield. Sophomore kicker Cory Munson dribbled an onside kick, recovered it by himself at the FAU 35-yard line. 

“We saw that we had a chance early in the game to maybe get that,” Helton said. “Corey [Munson] does a really good job of that particular kick, and since we had the field position, we’re kicking off at the 50. You’re not going to lose a lot if you didn’t get it, so we went ahead and rolled the dice and he did a great job coming up with it.”

WKU moved into the redzone after a 32-yard completion from Zappe to Beljan. An ineligible man downfield penalty took a touchdown off the board. WKU settled for a 26-yard field goal from redshirt sophomore kicker Brayden Narveson. WKU led 31-10 with 1:35 left in the first half of play. 

Neither team could muster anything else before the break. Zappe threw for 340 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone.

“It’s been the best year of my life,” Zappe said. “To be able to play with these guys, [it’s] something I’ll remember forever, and what we’ve been able to do on the offensive side is something that will go down in the history books. So it’s been awesome, we still have three more. So we’ve got a lot more work to be done.”

Q3 

Redshirt sophomore Beanie Bishop returned the second half kickoff to the house, but a holding penalty negated his score. 

“I like to pray about it before the games,” Bishop said. “Just leave it all to God, just be able to play free and do my assignments, play where I’m supposed to be.”

The WKU offense didn’t do much on its first drive after the break, ending with Zappe’s second interception of the day to redshirt sophomore Korel Smith. 

FAU couldn’t capitalize on the turnover. Four plays after the Zappe’s interception, Perry threw one of his own to Bishop. 

“If you trust the person to be where he’s supposed to be and he’s there, we’re capable of making plays and being able to play fast,” Bishop said.

WKU couldn’t make anything of the turnover, going three-and-out. Perry converted a third-and-five and found LaJohntay Wester for 15 yards, getting down in the redzone for the third time in the afternoon. This time, Perry led his troops to pay dirt, finding John Mitchell for a nine-yard touchdown. 

Zappe and the Hilltopper offense found some rhythm, converting a third-and-seven. The next play, sophomore linebacker Eddie Williams forced freshman Noah Whittington to fumble. Graduate safety Jordan Helm jumped on the loose ball for FAU. 

The WKU defense stepped up after the turnover. Malone came away with a record-breaking sack, and on the next play, redshirt senior Omari Alexander came away with an interception on Perry.

Malone’s 30.5 career sacks is now tops of the Hilltopper record books.

“His motor is real high, I like to play with that guy because he makes my job a lot easier,” Bishop said of Malone. “Forcing the quarterback to make bad throws and bad decisions, which enables me to catch interceptions and get pass deflections and stuff like that.”

“It’s a tremendous honor, none of this would be happening if it weren’t for the defense,” Malone said. “I give credit to my guys and they do a great job… We just want to keep it rolling.”

Zappe made quick work of the interception with a 22-yard completion to Sterns before finding Tinsley for a 27-yard touchdown to cap off the five-play drive. WKU led 38-17 with 1:59 left in the third quarter. 

FAU went three-and-out on its next possession. 

Q4 

The Hilltoppers continued to air it out, moving the ball down the field with ease. Zappe dumped off a screen pass to Beljan, who carried an Owls defender to the endzone for a seven-yard touchdown, extending the WKU lead to 45-17.

The second team unit came in for both teams. FAU got into WKU territory but was forced to punt. WKU drove the length of the field on a 10-play, 83-yard drive that was capped off with a Moses seven-yard touchdown. 

WKU redshirt junior Christian Gomez came down with an interception against his former school on the next possession. WKU ran out the clock, securing its sixth consecutive victory and 11th consecutive win on senior day 52-17.

Up next, WKU plays the Marshall Thundering Herd (6-4, 4-2 C-USA) next Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT in Huntington, West Virginia, in what could be a winner-takes-all matchup for the C-USA East Division title. 

“Well, it’s great to be in that position. It’s what you work for,” Helton said. “Marshall is an excellent football team. It’s going to take everything we got, but it’s what you work for. You want to be in that position to have a chance to go play in the championship and that’s the goal. So we’re excited to be there and have that opportunity, and we got to take care of business. So, it’ll be a tough opponent. They’ll want it just as bad as we did for sure.” 

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