WKU dominates App State 59-31 in the Boca Raton Bowl, Zappe sets two FBS records in final game as a Hilltopper

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WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe unleashes a pass during the Hilltoppers’ spring game back in April.

Wyatt Sparkman, Sports Editor

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Dec. 19 to include quotes from players and coaches.   

WKU (9-5) dominated the Appalachian State Mountaineers (10-4) 59-31 in the Boca Raton Bowl Saturday morning. The game came exactly a week after a devastating EF3 tornado swept through Bowling Green.

“Well, it’s definitely on our mind the whole game, talking to the team before we left the hotel, we said ‘hey bowl games are important, winning is important, but it means more today’,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “And it did. It just meant more today to us because we knew our state and our community was going to be watching, and we needed to make them feel good.” 

“That’s the beauty of football,” Helton continued. “It brings everybody together, and when we needed to bring everybody together, I’m sure they were back at home watching. We love them. Bowling Green is such a great town and great community and when the tornadoes hit, we all embraced and loved each other and went to work, and they’re continuing to work. We just wanted them to take a little break watching football and see the Hilltoppers win.”

WKU graduate gunslinger Bailey Zappe broke the FBS single-season passing yards record late in the second quarter with a 43-yard completion as well as the single-season passing touchdown record with a two-yard pass to junior wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley. 

“It means a lot to me to be able to achieve this with him [Jerreth Sterns], the rest of my teammates, it makes it even more special to come out with a win as well,” Zappe said.

Zappe threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns while completing 70% of his passes. He took home the Boca Raton MVP Award for his performance and finished the season with 62 scores.

This was WKU’s eighth bowl game in the last 10 years while it was App State’s seventh consecutive bowl game since joining FBS play in 2014. The loss was the first bowl game loss for the Mountaineers. 

App State’s graduate signal-caller Chase Brice tossed for 317 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. 

WKU junior wide receiver Jerreth Sterns 13 passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns. He fell nine receptions short of breaking the single-season FBS reception record.  

“I would just give the credit to everyone else honestly,” Sterns said about his performance. “Mitch [Tinsley] making big plays on the outside and then obviously, having the best quarterback in the nation makes my job a lot easier. I don’t think our o-line gets the love they deserve but all year they’ve kept this guy [Zappe] clean for the most part. So, I just really just want to give the credit to everyone else.”  

App State junior running back Camerun Peoples rushed for 101 yards, while the team totaled 251 yards in total on the ground. 

Both teams combined for 1,246 total yards of offense. 

“We’re clicking all cylinders,” Zappe said. “We started fast, we finished fast. It’s by far one of our best games of the year as an offense. It was awesome.”

Q1 

App State won the toss and elected to defer. 

Zappe missed his first two passes but found Sterns wide-open to convert a third-and-10. The next play, he hit junior wideout Daewood Davis for 17 yards. Zappe found Davis again in stride for 39 yards before hitting Sterns for a one-yard touchdown, giving WKU an early 7-0 lead. 

App State hit the ground running with a 47-yard run by sophomore halfback Nate Noel. Peoples converted a fourth-and-one but the drive ended abruptly. DeAngelo Malone hit Brice during his throwing motion, and graduate Michael Pitts intercepted the pass. 

The Hilltoppers didn’t convert off the turnover. Junior Nick Hampton sacked Zappe on third down, forcing a quick five-play possession. The Mountaineers started getting into a rhythm with a 16-yard completion by Brice on third-and-eight. Three plays later, Brice found senior wide receiver Malik Williams wide-open for a 36-yard touchdown, tying the game at 7-7.  

WKU responded quickly. Zappe hit junior wideout Mitchell Tinsley on a slant route before Tinsley broke three tackles on his way to a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the drive. 

App State punched back. Brice found senior wide receiver Jalen Virgil on a third-and-four for a 60-yard touchdown on the fifth play of their possession.

The Hilltoppers couldn’t get the ball moving before the end of the first quarter, ending on a third-and-six. 

Q2

WKU failed on third down and punted the pigskin away. App State didn’t muster anything, going three-and-out. The Hilltoppers ran the ball for the first time in the game with freshman running back Noah Whittington busting off a 15-yard run. 

“Our powerful passing game, it opens the holes for the run game and to see that come in effect today… that’s awesome to see,” Zappe said. “It’s easy for us. It’s easy for me to just be like ‘right here Noah, you run,’ and he’s able to do that. He’s a phenomenal running back. We’re blessed to have four of them.”

Zappe found freshman Dalvin Smith for 33 yards, moving the drive inside the 10-yard line. WKU couldn’t force its way into the endzone, setting up for a 24-yard field goal by redshirt sophomore Brayden Narveson.

Virgil returned the ensuing kickoff for 39 yards, giving the Mountaineers great field position. Brice converted a third-and-four with a 10-yard completion before hitting DaShaun Davis for a 33-yard touchdown, giving App State a 21-17 lead with 8:57 left in the first half. 

WKU continued to shred the App State defense through the air. Zappe hit two quick short passes for 12 yards before going over the top for 40 yards to Sterns. The ground game got the ball inside the five-yard line. Zappe lofted a dangerous pass to redshirt sophomore Joey Beljan but the tight end came down with it, putting the Hilltoppers back up 24-21. 

Peoples broke out for a physical 45-yard run, continuing the Mountaineers dominance over the Hilltopper defense. Brice picked up a third down with his feet to get his troops inside the redzone. App State couldn’t convert the drive into six points. Chandler Staton hit a 28-yard field goal to tie the game at 24 apiece. 

Whittington got the possession going with a 12-yard run. Zappe converted a third-and-three with a four-yard scramble. The next play, he tossed a 43-yard pass to Sterns to break the B.J. Symons’ FBS passing yards record of 5,833. He found Sterns in the back of the endzone for a 10-yard touchdown two plays later, tying the FBS single-season touchdown record with his 60th score of the season.

The Mountaineers went three-and-out, and the Hilltoppers took a knee to head to break. Both offenses took over the first half for 692 yards of total offense. 

“All year when we’re hitting on all cylinders, we’re just hard to defend,” Helton said. “I thought offensively we did a great job of taking advantage of what they gave us, and early in the game, in the secondary, we felt like we had some opportunities in the passing game and as we continued with the game, that’s when we started to get into the run game piece just because they started to get soft and were able to pop a big run there.”

Q3 

App State continued where it left off in the first half, getting into WKU territory with ease after a 25-yard pass to Thomas Hennigan. Peoples rushed for a 19-yard gain, but the ball popped loose at the end of the play. The officials reviewed the play and overturned the call on the field, ruling that Peoples fumbled. WKU recovered the ball. 

“Just coming together, staying focused and doing our job,” WKU safety A.J. Brathwaite Jr. said. “We cut the gameplay down to make it basic for us to fly around and make plays. I feel like after the second half we did.”

Whittington burst through the line of scrimmage on the first play for a 86-yard touchdown on the first play of the possession. App didn’t respond, going three-and-out after a sack by junior Brodic Martin. 

Freshman Kye Robichaux picked up a third-and-two with a nine-yard rush, then caught a 33-yard pass from Zappe on the next play, moving the ball near the redzone. App State penalties help move the ball to the one-yard line.

After two attempts, Zappe found Tinsley for a two-yard touchdown to break the FBS single-season touchdown record, set by Joe Burrow in 2019.

Brice and his troops answered back. Brice found sophomore Christian Wells wide-open for a 62-yard touchdown. Bailey and his troops responded with the ground before Zappe found Sterns for 12 yards and Smith another 12 yards.

Zappe then hit Sterns on a quick pass and Sterns did the rest, breaking a tackle and running to pay dirt for a 37-yard touchdown. WKU led 52-31 with 2:42 left in the third quarter. 

Brice found Henry Pearson for a 40-yard completion on the first play of App State’s next possession. The Mountaineers struggled to move the ball after the big play, resulting in a fourth-and-17 to end the third quarter. 

Q4 

WKU forced a turnover on downs on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Hilltoppers started to chew clock, keeping the ball on the ground to get to midfield. Zappe converted a third-and-four before the ground game took over again. WKU settled for a Narveson field goal, but the kick was blocked. 

Redshirt junior Marcus Bragg sacked and stripped Brice on the first play of the next play. Junior Darius Shipp received for the Hilltoppers and returned it to the Mountaineers two-yard line. Two plays later, Robichaux powered his way to a two-yard touchdown, extending the WKU lead 59-31. 

The second team units came in for the rest of the game. Both teams didn’t get anything going for the next couple of possessions before the sophomore Anderson Castle took over. He rushed for 54 yards on his way to a nine-yard touchdown, cutting the lead to 59-38. 

Both teams turned the ball over on the next couple of possessions before WKU kneeled down to win the 2021 Boca Raton Bowl 59-38. 

“The great thing about Western Kentucky is that winning is important, and we have a passion for winning,” Helton said. “We talk about is it’s one thing to go to bowl games, it’s another thing to win bowl games. So to be able to win today like we did in a resounding fashion and to have such a special year that we had, to be the East Division Conference champs, that was just a great season.”

“The ultimate goal is, we’ll regroup and try to go compete for another championship next year,” Helton continued. “That’s the goal every single year, but we’re definitely going to take some time to enjoy the season, enjoy this win and think back [on] all the history that we made this year.”

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