Remember in Star Wars when the empire built a giant Death Star capable of destroying planets in a matter of seconds?…And then turns out that all you had to do destroy it was fire once into a big, very visible hole in the side? That’s exactly what this Western Kentucky team feels like this year.
Graduate transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe has thrown for 13 touchdowns through three games this season. If Zappe remains healthy and keeps up this pace of throwing 4.333 touchdowns per game, he will break WKU’s single-season passing touchdown record of 49 set by Brandon Doughty in 2014. That would also make him top three in career passing touchdowns at WKU despite only playing one year in Bowling Green. That shows just how much this passing game and the additions of Zappe, Jerreth Sterns, Josh Sterns, Daewood Davis, and others, plus new OC Zach Kittley, have impacted the program.
Even so, the Tops are 1-2 and if things continue to trend the way that they are going, they won’t be in contention for the C-USA East title and may not even reach bowl eligibility.
The issue continues to be two things: not much balance in the offense, and a defense that just isn’t very good.
While both of Western Kentucky’s losses so far were by two points or less, you have to look a little deeper to understand the whole story. Let’s look at this past weekend’s loss to Indiana.
Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. had a career-high 35 completions in this game in addition to 373 passing yards, the second-highest total of his career. Running back Stephen Carr also turned in one of the best games of his career running for 109 yards on 25 carries. Carr has only carried the ball for more than 100 yards on two other occasions: week 2 of this season against Idaho and in 2017 against Stanford when he was a member of USC. In order to win games against quality opponents, you simply can’t allow them to have career statistical days and you definitely have to put up a better fight than Idaho.
Offensively, Zappe threw for 365 yards, but the Tops ran for just 93 yards in the Indiana game.
Going back another game to the loss against Army, a similar story unfolded. Army quarterback Christian Anderson rushed for a career-high 119 yards while the Black Knights totaled 339 yards on the ground and doubled the Tops in time of possession. While Zappe threw for 435 yards, WKU had virtually no success reverting to the run when they needed to. They totaled just 42 yards in that department and their longest run was for just four yards. The Black Knights also were a constant presence in the backfield with three sacks, four TFLs, and three quarterback hurries.
Finally, you have the opener against UT-Martin. This was obviously WKU’s best game as Zappe threw for seven touchdowns on the way to a 59-21 win. The run game had a decent, but not all that impressive day with 109 yards. On the other side of the ball, UT-Martin quarterback Keon Howard threw for 195 yards and a touchdown while also running for two touchdowns in that game. UT-Martin had not had a quarterback run for multiple touchdowns in a game since 2007. While this was clearly a better day defensively for the Tops, they did also allow two different UT-Martin rushers to average more than ten yards per carry in that game.
The reality of success in college football is that you need to be at least somewhat balanced in order to achieve consistent success. We’ve seen that play out dozens of times over in the Big 12 with offenses built like Lamborghinis - fast and fun to watch, but if there’s a pebble in the road, the car’s going to crash into a tree. Those offenses aren’t enough to gain you national success if you can’t defend or properly utilize your run game when your quarterback and receivers are out of sync, which does happen occasionally.
Yes, rushing numbers aren’t very high in an Air Raid system. However, as my colleague, Eric Henry pointed out a few weeks ago, since 2010, no team has won Conference USA without rushing for at least 154 yards per game. The Tops rushing average so far this year is 81.3 yards.
All this said to point out that things are unlikely to get easier for the defense in particular, at least in the next few weeks.
The Hilltoppers continue their season next week against a ranked Michigan State team that has demonstrated a very strong run with 215 rushing yards per game this season. After that, they play host to UTSA with multiple hard-to-contain weapons in the backfield averaging 443.8 yards of offense. That’s not to mention some other strong C-USA offenses on the schedule like Charlotte, FAU, Marshall, and a rapidly improving MTSU.
While Bailey Zappe and the rest of the shiny offensive transfers will undoubtedly end the year with plenty of film for pro scouts to gush over, it's unlikely that it’s going to mean much in terms of putting WKU in a position to win the league or earn a great bowl berth if those two things don’t improve. Then Tyson Helton will have to rebuild the best part of his team come the end of the season.
So, if you aren’t able to utilize possibly the best passer the program has ever had to add to the trophy case, what does any of this really mean? Well, Tyson Helton and his staff should be able to pitch Zappe’s statistical success in building their recruiting strategy for years to come, at least when it comes to transfers.
Stuck in a program where you are not able to showcase your talents? Come to Bowling Green, Kentucky, show people what you can do against tougher competition, and have a bite at Double Dog’s while you’re at it.
That way, you can build a new and better Death Star that’s less vulnerable, like the Empire did in Return of the Jedi.
*checks notes* Wait, that one got blown up too? Well, whatever. Every Star Wars movie after Empire Strikes Back was bad anyway.