Western Kentucky University started the football season 1-4 and was being written off by most observers by the second week of October.
Granted, WKU’s early schedule included two teams from the Big 10 (Indiana and Top 25 Michigan State) and Army. The Hilltoppers also faced a C-USA foe in UTSA that is 11-0 and ranked No. 15 in the AP Top 25 heading into the final Saturday of the regular season. USTA has locked up its spot in the C-USA Championship Game as the West Division champions and will host the league championship on Dec. 3 in the Alamo Dome.
The Hilltoppers travel to Marshall for a Saturday showdown (2:30 p.m. CT) that will determine the C-USA East Division winner that will face USTA in the C-USA Championship Game. WKU is 7-4, 6-1 in the league. Marshall is 7-4, 6-2.
The turnaround in Bowling Green has been astounding. WKU has won six straight games mainly on the passing prowess of graduate transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe.
Zappe will be a focal point for both teams. The 6-foot-1 220-pound senior has thrown for 4,640 through his first 11 games as a Hilltopper. With 48 touchdown passes already this season, Zappe is tied for ninth all-time in the FBS. He leads FBS with 421.8 pass yards per game, with the next-closest being Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong at 404.4 yards. Zappe also leads FBS with 48 TD’s, 10 more than Alabama’s Bryce Young and SMU’s Tanner Mordecai.
Wide receiver Jerreth Sterns, who came to WKU with Zappe from Houston Baptist, has also been chasing the all-time greats. Through 11 games, Sterns’ numbers are comparable to Taywan Taylor’s 2016 season in which he set all-time records (98 catches for 1,730 yards with 17 touchdowns) in 14 games.
“Bailey Zappe is the best quarterback in America. Am I biased, sure, but I get to watch him very single day,” WKU coach Tyson Helton said. “He deserves every award out there in my opinion. So does Jerreth Sterns, he is the most productive receiver in America.
“The challenge they have is to continue that conversation with their play, you just keep going out there playing.”
Zappe has hit 71.6% of his passes and thrown for 48 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions.
“It’s been the best year of my life, no doubt, by far the best decision I ever made was to come here, be a part of this program, I could say that every day,” Zappe said Saturday after finishing his WKU home career with 470 yards and six touchdowns in WKU’s 52-17 win over Florida Atlantic. “What we’ve been able to do on the offensive side is going to do down in the history books.”
In order for WKU to get on its winning streak, the defense had to be adjusted and built up after a difficult early season.
“Our defensive scheme, we re-evaluated the scheme about Game Five (UTSA), let’s do some things to tweak our scheme, let’s do put our guys in positions to make some plays,” Helton said. “We started to get some turnovers here and there, Coach Crum says they come in bunches, and they’ve definitely come in bunches. We need to get a couple this week, too.”
That is defensive coordinator Maurice Crum, who has seen his players make 13 interceptions in the last three games after WKU managed just five in the first eight games of the season.
Stringing wins together took total focus on improving a little as a team day to day.
“We’ve learned a lot about ourselves, we’ve drawn closer as a team,” Helton said. “We didn’t blink, it just made us stronger, we believed in each other more. We knew what we were capable of, now we’re down the stretch. This is the game where we’ve got to put it all together.”
Marshall has one of the best defensive units in the Group of 5, with the No. 16 passing defense in the country (187.5 yards a game) going against the No. 1 passing offense in WKU (433.6).
WKU is third in the country in total offense with 528.3 yards a game. Marshall is ninth with 484.3 yards a game.
This game has produced Madden Football numbers in some games, and this matchup has the potential to be an offensive masterpiece.
Helton and the Hilltoppers don’t seem interested in getting caught up in the hype or the rivalry. They want to go to a place that has been very difficult to win in and somehow get to the C-USA championship game.
“Our umber one goal is Marshall, Marshall, Marshall, it is not an easy place to play by any means,” Helton said. “To me, I try not to look past that, it’s a really good opponent to play, whoever wins gets to represent the East. We just focus on our day to day job, we just kind of keep that mentality more than anything, that’s how we operate best, don’t talk about the what ifs just go out there and do our job.”