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WKU Football: A Season Wrapped

When it comes to Western Kentucky football, a lot of fans are sitting back in awe at what the Hilltoppers were able to accomplish this season.

Prior to the start of the season, I said:

"Overall, expect the offense to make a statement in the Conference USA [...] this is a unit that could return to something similar to what it had in 2015".

Following this season, it's pretty safe to say that any expectation for this offense was met and tripled. The defense also followed suit, playing stout football through conference play and the postseason.

The First Five

The Hilltoppers started the season with a 1-4 record, recording four straight losses to Army, Indiana, Michigan State, and UTSA, following its opening debut win against the FCS' UT-Martin.

At this point in the season, the defense was allowing 38.4 points per game. In the five game stretch, the defense had allowed 480.4 yards per game, 23 touchdowns, 6.1 yards per play, and had posted two interceptions, totaling just five turnovers.

On the other side of the ball, a Zach Kittley-crafted offense provided a breath of fresh air for the program.

Right from the get-go, star graduate transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe made his jump to stardom. In the five game stretch, Zappe had totaled 2,289 passing yards and 22 passing touchdowns on a 71% pass completion rate.

Despite the hard losses, the locker room stayed true to the process and overcame the obstacles that came with the losing record it posted at this point. Through a rough start and adversity met early on, a top-notch offense, and a defense with all of the right pieces, was sure to make for an unforgettable finish.

A New Season

With inner-conference play making it's start across the nation, a new mindset marched into the Hilltoppers locker room: a new season.

Despite the Tops first bout of in-conference play falling short to UTSA, who was now ranked 24th nationally the following weekend, the New Season mentality made it's real start in Norfolk, Virginia, at S.B. Ballard Stadium, where the Hilltoppers were to take on the Old Dominion Monarchs.

The offense took to the field and did it's thing from the start, where Zappe found freshman receiver Malachi Corley for a 26 yard touchdown pass. From there and on, the offense kept it's foot on the gas to the finish, where Zappe hung five passing touchdowns on the Old Dominion defense.

The Hilltoppers defense found it's footing in Norfolk, too.

Redshirt junior linebacker Will Ignont put together a big-time defensive performance, posting nine tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss, and an interception. Senior defensive end DeAngelo Malone found himself with eight total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, and one forced fumble. Senior safety Antwon Kincade finished with seven tackles and an interception. The other two defensive sacks came from graduate DE Michael Pitts and redshirt junior DE Juwuan Jones.

Together, the defense allowed 20 points, with just six total before the fourth quarter.

From this point on, the climb would only get better for the Hilltoppers.

Over the course of the next six games, the defense, led by defensive coordinator Maurice Crum, would allow just 18.6 points per game, including just a 57% average completion rate. The unit pulled in 15 interceptions, 34 pass break ups, 21 sacks, 18 QB hits, and eight forced fumbles. It allowed just 104.5 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry on seven total rushing touchdowns allowed.

As for the offense, over the course of these six games, it found itself at the top of the nation. Zappe completed 70.6% of his passes for 2,336 passing yards and 26 passing touchdowns. He even added two touchdowns on the ground.

Zappe's top targets in this time-frame (and all season long, really) were receivers Jerreth Sterns, Mitchell Tinsley, Daewood Davis, Malachi Corley, and Dalvin Smith. This receiving corp accounted for 1,969 yards and 22 touchdowns on 159 receptions.

The run game found itself led by freshman running back Noah Whittington (268 yards, one touchdown), graduate Adam Cofield (143 yards, one touchdown), freshman Kye Robichaux (161 yards, one touchdown), and redshirt sophomore Jakairi Moses (93 yards, one touchdown). In total, this group rushed for 665 yards and four touchdowns in the six-game stretch.

The Nail-Biter

Coming into the 2021 Ryan Conference USA Championship, the Hilltoppers sat with an 8-4 record, the top offense in the nation, and a defense riding high on a seven-week tear through the C-USA.

The Roadrunners, 11-1 at the time, were coming off of a loss to a 5-6 North Texas team.

As one could imagine, the momentum was high for Tops, and the tension higher for the pride-strucken 'Runners.

Things started flashy in the Alamodome when the Hilltoppers got the ball first and, in under a minute, Zappe found Tinsley for a 60 yard touchdown pass.

UTSA answered immediately on a seven play, 75 yard drive that ended with a 24 yard touchdown run for quarterback Frank Harris.

In a flash forward, when the two teams departed for half time, the Toppers went into the locker room down 28-13.

Close to the end of the third quarter of play, the Tops found themselves down 26-42. And to start the nail-biting stretch of play that would ensue, Zappe found Sterns on a 13 yard touchdown pass to end the third quarter.

To start the stunning final quarter, the Hilltoppers held the Roadrunners to a failed field goal attempt to get the ball back again with 12:11 left in the game.

This time, the score came from a one yard Robichaux touchdown run, followed by a successful two point conversion pass from Zappe to Sterns to shorten the gap, making the score 34-42. With 11:01 left in the fourth, the Roadrunners would score again on a Harris touchdown pass, making the score 34-39. Western would again take the field with 06:18 posted on the clock, where a nine play, 72 yard drive ended with a Zappe touchdown to the Sterns.

The score, now 41-49, had UTSA holding a close lead. With a botched Roadrunners drive starting at 03:58 and falling short of a touchdown, the Hilltoppers got the ball back with 01:05 left on the clock. Driving WKU down the field, and with one second left on the clock, Zappe tossed a hail mary deep, ending the game with an interception.

Losing in heartbreaking fashion, the Hilltoppers would fall just short to the Roadrunners, 41-49.

Records Broken in Boca Raton

Following a championship loss, the disappointed but unshaken Hilltoppers accepted an invitation to the Roofclaim Boca Raton Bowl on December 5th.

Scheduled for December 18th, the Tops were to take on the 10-3 Appalachian State Mountaineers, who had also just lost their own conference championship in the Sun Belt, falling to the 20th ranked Louisiana.

Unknown to the Mountaineers, this would be the game that Zappe re-wrote record books, forever, witnessed 1.6 million TV viewers.

Late in the second quarter of action, Zappe hit Sterns on a 43 yard pass to break the FBS all-time single season passing record, previously held by BJ Symons (Texas Tech, 2003).

Then, with 06:00 left in the third quarter, Zappe again re-wrote record books when he hit Tinsley on a two yard touchdown pass to break the FBS all-time single season passing touchdowns record, previously held by Heisman trophy winner and current Cincinnati Bengals quatterback Joe Burrow (LSU, 2019).

Zappe threw for six touchdowns on 422 passing yards, delivering scores to Sterns (3), Tinsley (2), and tight end Joey Beljan (1). Zappe's six passing touchdowns would be the most in Boca Raton Bowl history, and earn him Offensive MVP honors. Sterns tied the Boca Raton Bowl record for receiving touchdowns.

The run game also put on a big performance, with Whittington rushing for 150 yards and a score, and Robichaux grounding 67 yards and a score of his own. Whittington's 86 yard touchdown run is the longest rushing touchdown in Boca Raton Bowl history.

Kincade would win Defensive MVP following an 11 tackle performance for the Hilltoppers defense.

When the dust settled, the Hilltoppers won big in Boca Raton, bringing the bowl back to Bowling Green with a score of 59-38.

WKU ends the season with a 9-5 record, with the #1 ranked passing offense, second ranked total offense, second ranked scoring offense. The defense finished second in the nation in interceptions with 21, and 27th in the nation in sacks with 36. It also finished 48th in defensive passing efficiency (128.16).

What a season by the Hilltoppers!


Over the course of the season, a plethora of Hilltoppers garnered honors and recognition from analysts and sites across the nation. Here are the players that earned those. All of these honors are 2021-based.

*inhales very deeply*

Bailey Zappe, Quarterback

-2022 Reese's Senior Bowl Invite Accepted

-NCAA FBS All-Time Single Season Passing Yards Record (5,967)

-NCAA FBS All-Time Single Season Passing Touchdowns Record (62)

-Conference USA Most Valuable Player

-All-Conference USA First Team

The Athletic All-Portal Team

-247Sports All-Transfer Team

-PFF C-USA Offensive Player of the Year

-PFF All-CUSA First Team

-The Draft Network C-USA Offensive Player of the Year

-Pro Football Network Second Team All-American

-Pro Football Network Offensive Player of the Year

-Pro Football Network Quarterback of the Year

-2021 Manning Award Finalist

-2021 Boca Raton Bowl Offensive MVP

-2021 Phil Steele Preseason All-CUSA First Team

-Preseason All-CUSA Second Team (Athlon)

-PFF College Preseason All-CUSA Third Team

-2021 Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award Semifinalist

-2021 Davey O'Brien Award Semifinalist

-2021 Walter Camp Player of the Year Award Semifinalist

-2021 CFPA National Performer of the Year Watch List

-2021 Maxwell Award Watch List

-Manning Award National QB of the Week (10/08)

-Manning Award Star of the Week (four times, 11/20, 11/13, 10/30, 10/16).

-Davey O'Brien Award "Great Eight" (Twice, 10/30, 10/16)

-Davey O'Brien Award "Davey Double 16" (10/09)

Jerreth Sterns, Wide Receiver

-2022 East-West Shrine Bowl Invite Accepted

-2021 Conference USA Newcomer of the Year

-2021 C-USA First Team

-2021 FWAA Second Team All-American

-2021 AP Second Team All-American

-2021 AP Midseason All-American

-2021The Athletic Second Team All-American

-2021 The Athletic All-Portal Team

-2021 247Sports All-Transfer Team

-2021 PFF College Third Team All-American

-2021 PFF College First Team All-CUSA

-2021 Pro Football Network First Team All-American

-2021 Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award Semifinalist

-2021 Biletnikoff Award Semifinalist

-2021 Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award Honorable Mention (Four times, 11/20, 10/23, 10/16, 09/02)

-2021 Paul Hornung Award Weekly Honor Roll (10/16)

-C-USA Offensive Player of the Week (10/16)

DeAngelo Malone, Defensive End

-2022 Reese's Senior Bowl Invite Accepted

-2021 Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year

-2021 All-Conference USA First Team

-2021 PFF College All-Conference USA First Team

-2021 C-USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year

-2021 Conference USA Preseason Watch List

-2021 Chuck Bednarik Award Watch List

-2021 Bronko Nagurski Trophy Watch List

-2021 Rotary Lombardi Award Watch List

-2021 Phil Steele Preseason First Team All-CUSA

-2021 Athlon Sports Preseason First Team All-CUSA

-2021 The Athletic's Bruce Feldman's "Freaks" List (No. 66)

-2022 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl Big Board

Antwon Kincade, Safety

-2022 Hula Bowl Invitation Accepted

-2021 Conference USA Honorable Mention

-2021 Boca Raton Bowl Defensive MVP

-2021 Conference USA Preseason Watch List

-2021 Phil Steele Preseason Second Team All-CUSA

-2021 PFF College Preseason Second Team All-CUSA

-2021 Athlon Sports Preseason Third Team All-CUSA

John Haggerty, Punter

-2022 Hula Bowl Invitation Accepted

-2022 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl Big Board

-2021 Conference USA Honorable Mention

-2021 Ray Guy Award "Ray's 8" of the Week (09/25)

-2021 CoSIDA Academic All-District II

-2021 Ray Guy Award Watch List

-2021 Athlon Sports Preseason Second Team All-CUSA

-2021 Phil Steele Preseason Third Team All-CUSA

-2021 PFF College Preseason Third Team All-CUSA

Zach Kittley, Offensive Coordinator

-2021 247Sports Offensive Coordinator of the Year

-2021 Broyles Award Nominee

-2021 FootballScoop Coach of the Year Finalist (Offensive Coordinator, Quarterbacks Coach)

-2021 #1 Passing Offense in NCAA FBS

OTHERS RECEIVING HONORS ON THE SEASON (most notable recognition listed for each!)

Jeremy Darvin, DT

-2021 C-USA Honorable Mention

AJ Braithwhite, DB

-2021 C-USA Honorable Mention

Mitchell Tinsley, WR

-2021 All-Conference USA Second Team

Kahlef Hailassie, CB

-2021 C-USA Honorable Mention

Dalvin Smith, WR

-2021 Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year Nominee

Beanie Bishop, DB

-2021 All-Conference USA First Team

-2021 PFF College All-Conference USA Second Team (KR)

Will Ignont, LB

-2021 C-USA Honorable Mention

Omari Alexander, DB

-2021 PFF College Third Team All-CUSA

-2022 SPIRAL Tropical Bowl Invitation Accepted

Juwuan Jones, DE

-2021 Conference USA All-Academic Team

Rusty Staats, OC

-2021 C-USA Honorable Mention

-2021 PFF College Second Team All-CUSA

Boe Wilson, OL

-2021 All-Conference USA Second Team

-2021 PFF College First Team All-CUSA

-2021 The Athletic All-Portal Team

Jake Bowman, LS

-2021 C-USA Honorable Mention

-2021 C-USA All-Freshman Team

Cole Spencer, OT

-2021 First Team All-Conference USA

-2021 PFF College First Team All-CUSA

Mason Brooks, OL

-2021 First Team All-Conference USA

-2021 PFF College Third Team All-CUSA

Quantavious Leslie, OL

-2021 Second Team All-Conference USA

-2021 PFF College First Team All-CUSA

Joey Beljan, TE

-2021 C-USA Honorable Mention

-2021 Burlsworth Trophy Nominee

Darius Shipp, DT

-2021 C-USA Honorable Mention

Josh Crawford, Co-OC/WRs Coach

-2021 FootballScoops Wide Receivers Coach of the Year Finalist

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