Sparky Notes: Ground game hitting its stride ahead of UTSA rematch, defense has fully matured

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

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Marshall C. Canupp

Hilltoppers’ defense carries a FAU player before dropping him to end the play during their matchup.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU earned its spot in the Conference USA Championship after another dominant performance, winning 53-21 at the Marshall Thundering Herd. How did these Hilltoppers turn what looked to be a lost season into one of their best since entering FBS play? 

It starts with the defense

The Hilltoppers flipped the script after their first game against UTSA, allowing 38.4 points per game in their first five contests to just 18.8 points per game across their last seven. 

The two main reasons are removing early slow starts by the offense and the defense getting used to first-year defensive coordinator Maurice Crum’s style of play. 

A perfect example of this is redshirt senior linebacker Demetrius Cain’s interception against Charlotte when he jumped an out route on fourth down in WKU territory to come away with the pick. There have been countless moments like this since the UTSA loss where players are just making plays, showing that they’re comfortable in Crum’s system.

The offense jumping out to quick starts has allowed this defense to start playing aggressively. In WKU’s last seven games, its defense has created 22 turnovers, a far cry from five across its first five games. 

These better starts have allowed this WKU pass rush to “pin their ears back”, tallying 26 sacks in this seven-game stretch compared to only five in the first five games of 2021.

The saying “defense wins championships” is a fact for this Hilltopper program. When the defense improved, the wins started to roll in.

The offense has been able to adapt 

The high-powered WKU air attack has seen teams drop eight in coverage to stop the nation’s best passing offense over its seven-game win streak. WKU offensive coordinator Zach Kittley has put heavy expectations on the shoulders of star graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe, but it looks like the rushing attack can alleviate some of that pressure at just the right time.

WKU’s ground game has been an afterthought for this offense. The Hilltoppers have the second-fewest rush attempts in the nation and have the 12th fewest yards per game. However, Kittley’s offense ran the ball the most it ever has last Saturday against Marshall for 157 yards on a 4.6 yards per carry. 

WKU is on a streak of two consecutive 100-yard run games, but throughout the season, this ground attack has been inconsistent, rushing for under four yards per carry in half of its games this year. 

The good thing: the Hilltoppers had their best rushing performance of the season against their C-USA Championship opponent, the UTSA Roadrunners, back in October. In that first matchup, WKU rushed for 147 yards on a season-high 5.1 yards per carry. 

If WKU wants to earn its first C-USA Championship since 2016, the ground game has to take some pressure off of Zappe’s shoulders.

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