Entering the season, Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe was saddled with massive expectations after three highly-prolific seasons at the FCS level. 14 games later, Zappe finishes his final collegiate season by etching his name in the FBS record books for years to come. The Houston Baptist transfer broke the FBS single-season records for passing touchdowns and passing yards in the Hilltoppers’ 59-38 victory over Appalachian State in the 2021 Boca Raton Bowl.
"It's really special to achieve this with these guys and the records mean a lot to me and especially with the goal being to get this bowl championship," said Zappe postgame.
The win gives WKU head coach Tyson Helton his second bowl victory in three seasons and his 23 wins in three seasons is the most-prolific three-year stretch for the program since Jeff Brohm’s 30 wins from 2014-2016.
"I couldn't be more proud of our guys, to have a day like this where we set national records, today is a great day to be a Hilltopper," said Helton.
Helton’s team started quickly as they have all season, going 74 yards in 1:46 on the game’s opening drive, with Zappe finding fellow Houston Baptist transfer Jerreth Sterns for a one-yard touchdown pass. Sterns’ 2021 campaign has also paid dividends of a cosmic proportion for Helton, with the junior wideout hauling in 13 catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns. On the season, he finishes with 150 receptions for 1,902 yards and 17 touchdowns.
The Mountaineers, who entered the game looking for their 11th win of the year were able to keep pace with WKU in the early going, as Duke transfer Chase Brice drove his team 63 yards in six plays, culminating with a Malik Williams 36-yard touchdown catch.
The App State defense, which entered the game allowing only 19.3 points per game, were never able to find their footing against the dynamic Tops offense. On the very next offensive play, Zappe hooked up with wideout Mitchell Tinsley for a 75-yard touchdown. The final score of the opening quarter came via Brice finding senior receiver Jalen Virgil streaking down the left sideline for a 60-yard score, tying the game at 14.
App State led for the final time in the contest midway through the second quarter when Brice connected with sophomore wideout Dashaun Davis for a 33-yard touchdown strike, putting the Mountaineers ahead 21-17. But as has been the case throughout the year, Zappe had no issues responding, hitting tight end Joey Beljan across the middle of the field on a third-and-goal from the App State five-yard line to put Western ahead 24-21.
Following a Mountaineer 28-yard field goal by kicker Chandler Stanton, Zappe tied Burrow’s mark of 60 touchdown passes when he connected with Sterns for a 10-yard touchdown, bringing the first-half scoring to a close with WKU ahead 31-24.
The biggest momentum shift of the game — and arguably any real chance of App State keeping pace with Western Kentucky came on the Mountaineers opening drive of the second half. After driving inside the WKU 35-yard line, App State running back Camerun Peoples rushed to the 14-yard line, but was stripped by Western safety A.J. Brathwaite and the loose ball was recovered by reserved defensive lineman JaQues Evans.
Armed with the lead, Western offensive coordinator Zach Kittley sprung a surprise run play on App State, with freshman running back Noah Whittington taking an inside run play 86 yards directly through the heart of the Mountaineer defense, putting the Tops ahead 38-24. On the ensuing App State drive, the Mountaineers went three-and-out, as the drive was nuked by a Brodric Martin sack on third down. At the 5:56 mark of the game’s penultimate quarter, Zappe would top Burrow’s mark with a two-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley.
"We were very aware of the records coming into the game," said Helton. "Obviously, the first goal is to win and some of the passing numbers are standard for us, but we were aware."
The last meaningful App State score came when sophomore wideout Christian Wells opened the next drive by catching a 62-yard strike from Brice — but the Mountaineer defense was ill-equipped for the Western passing attack. Sterns caught a 37-yard touchdown pass from Zappe with 2:42 left in the third.
For Helton, the decision to leave his offense in the hands of the Houston Baptist trio of Kittley, Zappe and Sterns paid off beyond belief and gives the Tops a season to remember.
"It's a lot more than football," said Sterns. "We do everything together, so to be able to do this together as a group means everything to me."
Zappe ended the contest going 33-of-47 for 422 yards and six touchdowns. On the year, he finishes with 5,967 passing yards and a new FBS mark of 62 passing touchdowns.