SAN ANTONIO — Western Kentucky are favorites to win on the road at the Alamodome against UTSA this evening. The Hilltoppers and their fantastic quarterback Bailey Zappe are putting up 43 points per game, the highest for a league member since 2016, when WKU’s championship winning team averaged 45 per. The last CUSA team to average at least 40 points was FAU in 2017, when they put up exactly that.
Do not count out the Roadrunners, who are averaging a healthy ~37 points per contest. UTSA had a stretch of four games where they did not score fewer than 44. They have hit 50 twice. They will need it as Zappe has not thrown for fewer than 3 scores in a game this season. He tossed five against UTSA back in October.
This game is not about stats or numbers really. We know that both squads are good, and what each wants to do. UTSA will want to lock up Zappe a bit more by getting to him more often. In the first half of the last matchup, they sat back, content to flood the zone. Zappe sliced them up easily. Later, the brought more pressure, and forced a couple of punts. The Tops and OC Zach Kittley have refined their approach a bit, but have navigated passed the solid defense in Huntington.
UTSA is looking to play better after three disappointing weeks. While they managed to take a punch vs UAB and still score the game-winner, it took some heroics. Last week in Denton the offense fumbled, misfired, and did not have the same punch as they did in crunch time moments. WKU’s defense is playing more confidently in recent weeks, and while Grant Wells was out, they did well to shut down a good Marshall offense.
UTSA Offense vs WKU Defense
Western is slightly better than North Texas and slightly worse than UAB, the last two UTSA opponents at stopping the run 1. A good amount of that is that teams start abandoning the run game when they feel they need to catch up. UTSA will need to take a page from the UAB plan, which was to dominate possession and keep Zappe on the sideline.
Sincere McCormick was wrapped up in Denton, only running for 60 yards or so. QB Frank Harris ran for 69 on one play. There is enough explosion in the run game to keep the ball for a while. WKU will remember the last time, and how Harris was able to run and pass for whatever he wanted. His main threats outside — Zakhari Franklin, De’Corian Clark, Josh Cephus — can win a one-on-one battle and get scores. The famous drive vs UAB saw Clark make a big grab, and the start of the game saw Franklin make a one-hander vs UAB’s man coverage.
WKU is vulnerable to the pass, but so was NT. There is no cold, rainy weather to help even things out. UAB was burned in the dome, but made up for it by sacking Harris and causing problems for most of the game. WKU will be bringing some pressure early, and try to win another possession or two for Zappe. WKU’s corners Bradshaw and Hailasse will have their hands full if the WKU defensive pressure cannot get to Harris. It all starts with Cooper, Malone, Jones, and Darvin.
In October this group got eaten up (52 points) but came up with the crucial stop to give themselves a chance.
WKU Offense vs UTSA defense
Can we possibly overhype Zappe? He is on pace to set single-season records and has thrown for big yards and lots of scores even in losses. The Hilltoppers rely on him to make plays, change plays, and find the right decision every time and he has done so without fail for the most part. He did throw a pick late vs UTSA that lost the game for the Tops. The defense gave him a chance and it was a shocking INT that sealed it. Credit UTSA’s defense, a group whose pride is hurting
For two weeks straight, the opposition offense has been able to run wherever and however they wanted. Danzler, Brown, and Haynes are usually able to wreak a little havoc but one opposing coach told me “UTSA can be run on, but only North Texas committed to it”. Last week the Mean Green put up 340 yards. The tackling was suspect, and the desire was lacking.
The good news is the WKU is not a big running team. They can get loose — Moses, et al can scoot for some yards. The treat is Zappe, and his myriad WRs. Jerreth Sterns is setting records himself, but Tinsley, and Daewood Davis have been big play threats recently. There are a ton of weapons because the quarterback is one with the offense. Everyone becomes a threat.
WKU will score, but the challenge is making it hard to score, and forcing 12-play drives instead of 5-play demoralizers. Any offense forced to go deep into the bag of tricks is vulnerable to mistakes in execution. That is the challenge.
UTSA linebacker Clarence Hicks was a one-man QB destroyer vs UAB’s Hopkins, and will be a threat vs Zappe. WKU will have to account for his ability to make plays, and the UTSA secondary will need to step up. Last week they did not have to do much but tackle, and this week they will need to show they have made strides since UAB’s Trae Shropshire scorched them easily.
UAB is not known for their robust pass game, but Hopkins was able to find real success there. Zappe is an altogether different threat and that makes UTSA very vulnerable.
WKU has the momentum, but what does that mean exactly? They have played well but have not tasted real adversity since that UTSA game in October. The Roadrunners are lighter now having finally lost, and are hungry, after getting embarrassed in Denton.
For about four weeks in the middle of the season, they were clicking in all phases of the game. No one could touch the offense, and the defense and special teams were making plays all over.
That is the main difference in this one. WKU has a far superior offense, and a service defense that has played better. UTSA has been beat defensively, but is talented. They have talent that can elevate and can make plays that should not be made.
We saw what they can do when the chips are down: they do something the improbable. Should we put a lot of weight on the UNT game, a cold, dreary day in which the coaching staff was mostly concerned about getting out healthy and ready to play in this one?
UTSA can fully erase the stink of last week and being recollecting some national attention with a win tonight, in front of a CBS Sports Network audience. The program will have a packed house, and can send home 35K+ fans with a good feeling before a bowl announcement. That helps season ticket sales, donations, recruiting, and everything associated with giving next year an even better start. Or, it can fall down and hurt the chances of the next ‘magic’ season finding the casual fan. “They blow it when it matters” is the kind of excuse that is heard by the cynics, even new ones and it is a real impediment to building the groundswell of support necessary.
WKU can win their third league title, cementing the program as the winningest since 2013. FAU, and UAB each have two to their name. WKU football does not have the same name cache as it probably should have, and was ignored in the latest round of realignment. This program has won a lot, and Helton showed his ability to evaluate coaching and player talent. That goes a long way in this league, and might even take him to another program eventually. Having seen two champions in Bowling Green, I don’t know that we can say a third will help WKU turn some corner someplace, but it will solidify the case they make that they should have been taken. Maybe it will help fill the stands a little more on game days. Who knows.
The line is WKU -3.5, after starting at UTSA -2.5. Bettors do not like the UTSA defense against this offense. That makes a lot of sense. This might be the loudest crowd that WKU has heard in a long time, and the frustration and pride for UTSA might come out and help build a little lead that can be protected for a while. Marshall jumped out early, but got hurt and that changed the game.
UTSA can come out and do the exact same thing, and if Frank Harris benefits from being benched at halftime vs UNT? Well it means a championship is going to the blue-and-orange.
I smell a UTSA win by the skin of their teeth. Take UTSA +3.5, and the over (73).
in yards per attempt, in conference play ↩