Hilltoppers roll Herd to clinch C-USA championship berth, Zappe breaks single-season TD record

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Marshall Canupp

Hilltopper wideout Daewood Davis celebrates with the WKU crowd at Joan C. Edwards Stadium following a successful touchdown play during WKU’s 53-21 win over Marshall on Nov. 27, 2021.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

The WKU football program (8-4, 7-1 C-USA) trounced the Marshall Thundering Herd (7-5, 5-3 C-USA) 53-21 Saturday afternoon in Huntington, West Virginia, winning the Conference USA East Division title for the first time since 2016.

“The team just has a lot of fight and grit, and they believe in each other,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “You’re on the road at Marshall. You knew it was going to be a tough game and Marshall had a lot of momentum in the first half, and we went in the locker room at halftime and regrouped. We told each other we’re going to go out there and do it.”

“We put the pedal to the metal, and it started with the defense,” Helton continued. “They just got after them, and then [the] offense got the big touchdown early and then momentum swung our way.”

Marshall held a slim 14-6 edge heading into halftime but was outscored 47-7 in the back half of the contest when the Hilltoppers caught fire.

“Once we get started we’re hard to stop,” Zappe said. “…We’ve been really good this year. Our o-line, our receivers, they’ve made me look a lot better than I actually am. These guys are phenomenal. When I’m able to get the ball into [our] guys’ hands, let them make plays, that’s when we’re at our best.”

Besides reserving them a spot in the conference championship, the win snapped a four-game losing streak for the Hilltoppers in their series against the Herd.

“Credit to the head man,” WKU’s graduate gunslinger Bailey Zappe said. “Coach Helton, he brought in forty of us new guys into his program, put us underneath his wing, kind of put us all on one mission. We got together as a brotherhood, the guys that were already here welcomed us as well.”

Zappe broke the program’s single-season passing touchdowns record in the third quarter with his 50th TD of the year. He finished the evening with 52 scores to his name. Zappe threw for 328 yards and four touchdowns while completing a season-low 52% of his passes.

“It feels amazing,”’ Zappe said. “At the beginning of fall camp and all that you make a goal to go to the conference championship. We have the opportunity to go there and play against a great UTSA team, we’re going to their spot, we’re going to their house, it’ll be a fun Friday and we’re looking forward to it.”

Marshall’s redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells threw for 76 yards and one touchdown before getting injured in the second quarter. Redshirt sophomore Luke Zban came in off the bench and completed 64% of his passes for 123 yards with one score and one interception in relief.  

WKU junior wideout Daewood Davis led the receiving corps by catching three passes for 105 yards and two scores.

Marshall redshirt running back Rasheen Ali rushed for 97 yards on four yards per carry. 

WKU rushed for a season-high 157 yards against the Thundering Herd. Hilltopper kicker Bradyen Narveson went 4-for-5 on his field goals in the game, tying a career long of 53-yards in the third quarter. 

“We knew we had to run the football, because they were good in the secondary, and we knew that they would give us a tough time,” Helton said. “We made a point of emphasis, and it was a great job by our offensive line and our running backs. They did an outstanding job all game, and we really complimented each other, especially in the second half.”      

Q1 

Marshall won the coin toss and elected to defer. 

WKU’s first drive ended with a three-and-out. Marshall clicked early on, picking up an early third-and-one before getting into WKU territory on an Ali three-yard run. The Herd converted a third-and-six on a pass interference call. 

Wells and company picked up their third third down of the possession before Wells took it to the house himself for a one-yard touchdown run. Marshall led 7-0 with 7:01 left in the first quarter. 

The Hilltoppers looked to bounce back on their next drive. Freshman halfback Kye Robichaux picked up a fourth-and-one and a third-and-two, getting the ball into Herd territory. A fourth down came after two bad passes by Zappe. Marshall sophomore linebacker Eli Neal broke up the fourth down pass intended for Jerreth Sterns, giving the ball back to Marshall near midfield. 

Marshall picked up chunks of yardage with a 14-yard rush by Ali followed by a 20-yard completion from Wells to redshirt junior tight end Devin Miller. Wells converted a third-and-six to a wide-open Stone Scarcelle for 10 yards, moving the ball down to the WKU nine-yard line. The Hilltopper defense forced a third-and-goal from the seven-yard line as the first quarter expired. 

Q2 

The WKU defense forced a fourth down before Wells lofted a three-yard touchdown pass to Miller, extending the Marshall lead to 14-0 with 14:22 left in the first half.

The next three possessions ended in punts before Marshall got the ball moving again. The Thundering Herd’s ground game gashed the Hilltoppers with 12 and 11-yard runs. WKU’s all-time sack leader DeAngelo Malone came up with a strip sack on Wells and redshirt junior Brodric Martin recovered the pigskin for WKU. 

Zappe finally got into a rhythm, hitting redshirt freshman Dalvin Smith for 14 yards and junior Mitchell Tinsley for 10 yards. Zappe avoided disaster after fumbling on third down. Redshirt sophomore Brayden Narveson put the Hilltoppers on the board with a 40-yard field goal and Marshall led 14-3 with 8:05 left in the half. 

Luke Zban came in at quarterback for the Thundering Herd after Wells went to the locker room. Marshall moved into WKU territory with 21 and four-yard rushes from Ali. After a false start turned a third-and-one into a third-and-six, Zban dumped off a short pass to Ali, but he was called short of the line. Marshall went for it on fourth-and-one, but Zban was stuffed when he attempted to run it himself. 

Zappe converted a third-and-out with a nine yard completion before Noah Whittington picked up another third down on the ground. WKU settled for a 46-yard field goal from Narveson after three consecutive completions by Zappe. 

The WKU defense forced Marshall to punt, giving the ball back to its offense for a two-minute drill. Zappe completed four straight passes but the Hilltoppers settled for another Narveson field goal. The Herd iced him and the strategy worked as he kicked a line drive that bounced off the crossbar. 

Marshall led 14-6 at the break. 

Q3 

WKU forced a three-and-out on Marshall’s first possession. Two plays after the Herd’s punt, Zappe found Davis for a 47-yard touchdown, cutting Marshall’s lead to 14-13.

“I feel like that gave us a major spark,” Davis said. “Our offense, we’re a big-play offense. You can check the stats, you can check the record, we’ve got one of the best quarterbacks in college football, I call [Zappe] the general – once we get going, we get going, and I don’t think there’s a defense out there that can stop us.”

The WKU defense forced another Marshall punt and Zappe and his troops continued where they left off. Zappe hit freshman Malachi Corley and Sterns for 33 and 20 yard gains respectively to get near the redzone. Zappe then converted a third-and-one to redshirt sophomore tight end Joey Beljan.

“Once we were able to stop the run on first and second down we were able to pin our ears back and get to the quarterback,” redshirt junior defensive end Jaden Hunter said. 

Two plays later, Zappe found Corley in the back of the end zone for his record-breaking 50th touchdown on a 14-yard completion, giving WKU a 20-14 lead. The score broke Brandon Doughty’s record of 49 touchdowns set back in 2014. 

https://twitter.com/ConferenceUSA/status/1464732412685004802

Marshall responded by going three-and-out. On WKU’s first play of the possession, Zappe found Davis for a 50-yard touchdown. The Hilltoppers went for the two-point conversion, but failed. WKU led 26-14 with 7:28 left in the third quarter.

Marshall went three-and-out again. Tinsley converted a third-and-one with a diving reception, but Owen Porter came up with the Herd’s first sack of the game to halt the possession. Narveson bounced back to hit a 53-yard field goal, tying his career best, extending the Hilltopper’s lead to 29-14. 

Marshall went three-and-out for its third consecutive drive. WKU utilized the ground attack to get into Marshall territory before Zappe found Sterns for a seven-yard pass to enter the redzone as the third quarter came to an end. 

Q4 

Zappe found Smith for an eight-yard touchdown two plays into the fourth quarter, giving WKU 36 unanswered points. 

The Thundering Herd finally answered back. Zban found Talik Keaton for 14 yards, then broke into Hilltopper territory on a six-yard completion to Scarcelle. Zban then found Ahmed Shadeed, who fought his way into the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown reception to cut WKU’s lead to 36-21. 

Marshall went for an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, but WKU’s Craig Burt Jr. returned it 43 yards to the house, extending the WKU’s lead to 43-21. 

Marshall moved the ball a bit on its next possession but failed to convert on fourth down after Zban dumped off a short pass on to Ali before running out-of-bounds short of the first down. WKU ran off seven minutes of game time before Narveson made his fourth field goal with 1:12 left on the clock.

Davion Williams intercepted Zban and returned it for a touchdown, extending WKU’s lead 53-21. Marshall ran out the clock on its next drive. The Hilltoppers finished with a staggering 47 points in the second half after a horrendous beginning to the day.

“We scored what, 47 in a half? If that ain’t team football then I don’t know what is,” Zappe said. 

“I thought they did a really good job in the secondary covering us,” Helton said. “They played some man coverage, and they were able to stop us. Our offensive staff did a great job of making adjustments where we could get off some of the press man coverage and create some motions and stacks and different things and that really played in our favor. That’s why you have halftime, it’s to go out there [and] make adjustments for this exact reason.”

WKU and UTSA will now play for the C-USA Championship on Friday, December 3rd. The Roadrunners are ranked No. 22 in the CFB Playoff Rankings and lost their first game of the year to North Texas on Saturday.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Davis said. “Last time, they came to our place, we fell short. We took it with a grain of salt and came back to work. We ended up here, east division, now we get to go play for all the marbles.”

“It’s been a rollercoaster, after the first five games we didn’t know where we were gonna go,” Hunter said. “We had to come back together as a group, we met as a group after the UTSA game and really dialed in and locked in on the small details. The small details are the reason why we are where we are right now.”

Kickoff in San Antonio is set for 6 p.m. CT and the title game will be aired on the CBS Sports Network.

“When you play championship games, records are out the window,” Helton said. “It’s for all the marbles. They’ll be motivated. We’ll be motivated. [It] should be a great game. It’s what you work so hard for. They’re an excellent football team, and we’re an excellent football team, so it should be a great game next week.”      

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