WKU Football: Grading the Tops vs. Rice
Bowl eligible! The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers beat Rice to become bowl eligible at 6–4 and by way of FAU and Marshall losing, the Tops own the East lead outright with two games to play. (A little PSA: Sorry to those looking for some Game Grades early in the week…here I am Thursday night trying to crank out all my articles for the week!)
If you would have said that (WKU would win five in a row after a 1–4 start and hold a full one game lead in the East) to any WKU fan knowing how horrendous that defense was the first five games of the year, I think they would have taken that in a heartbeat. WKU is “cooking with grease” as the kids say.
Rewind back to Saturday. WKU goes down to Houston with a “reunion” type of feel for Tyson Helton (whose father was Houston’s head coach) and all of the Houston Baptist boys (Bailey Zappe, the Stern Brothers, Zach Kittley, and Ben Ratzlaff) and jumps on top of Rice 28–0 by halftime. Despite a rocky start where Bailey Zappe threw a rare red zone interception, the Topper defense responded, forcing a turnover of its own. From there, it was all WKU, eventually cruising to a 42–21 victory.
Some red flags did appear in the Toppers’ play, however. The defense surrendered over 500 yards, something they haven’t done much through the winning streak. However, the five turnovers they forced obviously helped keep Rice at bay. Western’s offense produced a ton of yardage (587) but only managed 42 points on an afternoon when opportunity was easily there for much more.
So let’s check out how the Tops did, starting with my Keys to Victory
Keys to Victory
Great Offense, Good Defense: B+
I think most Western people in and out of the program if they were being honest probably felt like WKU just needed to play well to win. They did just that for the most part. On defense, forcing five turnovers is great. The entire second half skews a lot of these numbers, because obviuously the game was pretty much out of reach once WKU took its 28–0 lead at the half. Rice gained 216 yards in the first half, so that’s not elite defense but good enough, especially considering two turnovers were forced after longer drives, as well. This isn’t a perfect score because the offense wasn’t its best converting its deep territory opportunities, missing on two red zone trips. The defense was good enough to never give Rice a chance to sniff contention.
Minimize Rice’s Explosive Plays Defensively: B-
Rice’s defense made the one play at the beginning of the game, and they did make another play that resulted directly in some Rice momentum and allowed them to make the score closer than it should have been. They would then follow it up with a fumble that allowed Rice to have another short field and score its final touchdown. So these mistakes alone directly cost the Tops at least 17 points, if not 21, assuming WKU scored on the opening possession instead of the Zappe interception. But let’s also talk about the positives: WKU only made one major mistake at a time that actually mattered to the outcome of the game. Also, Western’s offensive line was amazing again, allowing one sack and only one other tackle for loss. So that significantly raises this into the B’s, but 21 points difference in a close game would have been huge. WKU cannot throw away points like that in the first half. If that would have happened in a closer game, it could’ve been a real problem.
Win the Red Zone: C+
This has already been touched some when talking about the turnovers, but nonetheless, WKU was 5-of-7 in the red zone and Rice was 2-of-4. Without crucial turnovers (one on downs and one fumble), Rice could have been in a different position, especially if the Owls had converted on their first drive. I guess there is a slight positive in that WKU had more red zone opportunities than Rice. However, it doesn’t fully tell the tale. WKU only won by 21 because it allowed Rice to make plays it shouldn’t have.
Win Special Teams Decisively: B-
I’d say this wasn’t a decisive victory, but John Haggerty’s performance of punting for 16.2 yards per punt more than Rice really made a difference. He pinned them deep twice, booming it for 50 twice, and did have an unfortunate touchback. However, still the touchback only gave Rice field position at their own 20. So the punishment was not massive for a mistake he, granted, rarely makes. However, everything else was about equal. Neither team had more than a 22 yard return, and Cory Munson’s usual touchbackfest was not as present this game. He only had three touchbacks on seven kickoffs. Normally he’s kicking it in the end zone a strong majority of the time. But also the impact of special teams on this game was fairly low for the most part. After giving up a big play against MTSU, it’s a win not to give up a huge return.
Minimize Explosive Run Plays: A
I think looking back on it, this is one of the most important facets of this game. Rice was not able to run their style of football, because they were not able to be that successful on the ground. Sure, they had 140 yards, but they were basically forced to pass to get any kind of chunk plays. WKU didn’t allow a 20 yard run, something they have only accomplished in four of ten games. So when Rice was unable to play their grinding, clock-controlling style after getting down, the running game was hardly effective. WKU frustrated the Owls into trying to win by throwing, and even when they threw for 380 yards, they could only muster 21 points.
Bailey Zappe was back to his normal self, throwing five touchdowns and throwing one early interception. That’s about his normal solid performance. His yardage was back up into the upper 400s and he was spraying it all over the field, connecting on over 80 percent of his passes. Slight ding for the interception and his personal foul. That’s really something you don’t want to see from your QB, almost regardless of what happened to earn it. Also Chance McDonald came in and was utterly uneffective, throwing an interception and not really doing anything late.
Running Back: A-
This would be even higher if Robichaux hadn’t fumbled at the end of the game, which resulted in a garbage time touchdown. However, let’s not take away from Robichaux, who becomes the only Hilltopper running back in 2021 to gain a total of 100 yards from scrimmage. He may have exactly gained enough (61 rushing, 39 receiving), but he did it nonetheless. He also added two touchdowns, getting one through the air and one on the ground. WKU continues to take the stable approach, with multiple horses in the barn that get the rock when they have the hot hand. Noah Whittington and Adam Cofield have had their games to shine as the guy, but the game against Rice was the Kye Robichaux show. It’s really nice to see this Western running game coming along. Even though they didn’t muster 100 yards rushing (92 net yards), they still contributed, adding 51 yards through the air (Adam Cofield had one reception for 12 yards).
Wide Receiver: A
It’s so nice to see a guy like Mitchell Tinsley, who has been loyal to the Tops, continue to see success. 198 yards and two touchdowns is a wonderful game, especially on only ten receptions. Jerreth Sterns was also good, but not his normal self, “only” grabbing seven receptions for 92 yards. He is still on pace to shatter WKU’s all-time season record, so let’s not get too down on the guy. Again, WKU had tons of contribution from different receivers. It’s great to see Zappe and the Tops spread the wealth, so to speak. As an opposing defender, how could you possibly know who’s actually going to get the ball? Everyone does, depending on the situation.
Tight End: C+
Heyyyyy it’s not an F! Joey Beljan, bless his heart, is left with an impossible task of replacing Josh Simon, a Mackey Award finalist type of talent. But against Rice, Beljan did the job of any good tight end: Get open in the red zone. That’s exactly what he did, so give the man some credit. So let’s celebrate some kind of tight end presence! However, Beljan and the other tight ends need to show up more, either with noticeably good blocks, or by making multiple impact plays in the pass game. Until then, this position group just can’t justify a good to great type of grade.
Offensive Line: A
These guys continue to prove they are one of the better offensive lines to ever roam the trenches on The Hill. That was a formidable front and they walked away giving up one sack and one other TFL. Zappe was only touched one other time all game. And the running game was good enough to get the job done. Some of the other offensive issues really weren’t their fault. Great job by the linemen up front setting the tone for the rest of the offense. Also only one penalty directly on the offensive line is an acceptable number.
Defensive Line: B
Statistically, the defensive line was awesome. Lots of tackles, a sack, some PBUs, several hits on the QB, and five turnovers forced by the defense. That is nice. Also, ultimately Rice had to change its game plan because the Tops were able to stop the run enough that the Owls really had to try to throw the ball in order to win, something they are not comfortable doing. The D-line had a huge role to play in that. Darius Shipp was a force inside in this game. But they do need to be knocked down for the overall yardage total and also a couple of significant penalties. They were not handed ideal situations when the offense turned the ball over three times. However, you would still like to see the defense, especially the defensive line, making some game wrecking plays that helps keep those overall numbers down.
Again, I can’t give full marks because of the overall yardage, but the linebacker corps was great against Rice. Multiple sacks, multiple forced turnovers, and plenty of tackles. This linebacker group has gotten so much better over the course of the season. Jaden Hunter has been a nice find, and Will Ignont has been a one man wrecking crew on and off all season. I wouldn’t say he’s been incredibly consistent, but just about every game he makes a difference on at least one or two plays.
Defensive Backs: B-
The owness has to fall on somebody for all of those passing yards, and I think a large part of that blame has to fall on the DBs unfortunately. Although the tackling numbers didn’t fall all on the DBs like happened quite often early in the season, Rice was able to throw for its most passing yards all season in this particular game by over 100 yards. But on the positive side, the Tops forced a bunch of turnovers and none of the yardage issues and the extra points given up really mattered. WKU won by 21 and everybody was happy in Topper land. However, some issues have started creeping back into an area that I’m not 100 percent comfortable if the defense stops forcing turnovers. Also, penalties have crept back in, as well with several on the secondary this game.
Special Teams: A-
There was nothing wrong with anything related to special teams at all. This gets a little bit of a ding simply because you would like to see some kind of really nice production from somebody. The only person who was really good in their area of special teams was John Haggerty…and now that I think of it, Braden Narveson, but he wasn’t asked to do much (six PATs). But Munson was below his normal average, Sterns and Beanie Bishop were pretty average or so. Punt and kickoff coverage was pretty good, but 69 yards were gained off of kickoffs, so am I thrilled with that, either? Not really. It was good but it wasn’t elite, so they get a little ding for that. Still, this special teams unit has been airtight all season. There have been very few mistakes, and there have been plenty of moments of “wow”.
I think this deserves a mention in this particular game. First of all, your quarterback gets a personal foul called on him, presumably for cussing at the ref. That’s silly and from a star QB that knows what he’s doing, that’s foolish. Also, other personal foul penalties and significant 15 yarders that really hurt at times. When you look back, those are generally the drives that stall, or defensively, those are the drives they’re most likely to score on. You give somebody 15 yards, you just gave them 20 percent of what they need to put it in the end zone starting a drive from their own 25. You do that on offense and you’re making your life 2.5 times harder to get a first down.
Also, how about the discipline to keep going and keep the foot on the gas? It’s not a disaster, but Rice had chances to first of all take the lead early. Second of all, they had chances to get back in the game and blew it. In a game where the Tops were so dominant, it shouldn’t be in the realm of possibility that the other team could make a game of it.
First of all, why call a timeout in the second quarter when you’re at 4th-and-23 and the other team has a chance to go down and score before the half? That was a head scratcher. It also seemed like the Tops took a delay of game at their own 48 to give Haggerty room to punt. 52 yards seems like plenty of room to me, but that play felt like they did that on purpose. If it wasn’t and they just decided it was late in the play clock and oh well, that’s one thing. If it was intentional, why didn’t you do that when you were in Rice territory earlier in the game and Haggerty kicked it into the end zone? Also, the Tops certainly were not efficient in this game, essentially dominating the game but only winning by 21. Part of that was just circumstance, but part of that is coaching and putting guys in position to finish drives.
I’m not really upset or deeply concerned, but I will say this was not WKU’s finest performance. Three turnovers in a close game will get you in trouble. Getting nearly 600 yards and only scoring 42 with this offense is inefficient. Missing out on two opportunities in the red zone. Giving up over 500 yards. 380 passings yards to a team whose highest was 271. 75 yards in penalties. It was a little messy.
Some of the issues that have haunted the Tops this season crept back into this game in particular, and really perhaps the last few games. Penalties. Silly mistakes by a veteran quarterback. Fumbles at all (WKU has seven all year). Losing focus in the second half with a lead. Allowing teams to have their best statistical game in a certain area offensively.
Listen, WKU is on a five game win streak and they haven’t come close to losing a game since early October. But it will be a miracle if WKU is not challenged in any of its final games of the season. Whether it’s FAU, Marshall, UTSA/UAB, or the opponent in the bowl game, it would be an absolute miracle if WKU didn’t face a close game the rest of the season and waltzed to a ten win season for the first time since 2016. With that offense and a defense that just needs to show up, it’s possible they really could make this look easy.
But if either the offense or defense comes back to Earth and they need to win a 21–17 type of game, or even a 28–24 type of game, these silly issues all of a sudden become really important. Let’s watch to see if WKU sharpens up to end the season, or if these issues or others come back to bite them.
Tops take on FAU today in another elimination game for the opponent. FAU will be desperate and angry. The Tops better bring it. GO TOPS!