Quite simply, no FBS coordinator has meant more to his team than Offensive Coordinator Zach Kittley has meant to WKU this season. In his first year with the Hilltoppers – coming from Houston Baptist, where he held the same position for three seasons – WKU has gone from one of the worst offenses in the nation in 2020 to one of the best in 2021. Kittley’s “Air Raid” style system meshed with Head Coach Tyson Helton’s pro-style system has led to serious issues for opposing defenses.
In an abridged 2020 season, the success of HBU’s Air Raid passing offense made headlines throughout the country. In only four games, senior quarterback Bailey Zappe completed 141-of-215 passes (65.6%) for 1,833 yards, with 15 touchdowns and one interception. A trio of wide receivers – Jerreth Sterns, Josh Sterns and Ben Ratzlaff – combined to produce 89 receptions for 1,256 yards and 12 touchdowns.Zappe and the Huskies put up 480 pass yards and three scores at North Texas, 406 and five scores at LA Tech, and 380 and three scores at Eastern Kentucky. Then, at Texas Tech, Zappe completed 30-of-49 passes for 567 yards with four touchdowns, as the Huskies dropped a 35-33 heartbreaker even though they entered the game as 40-point underdogs. The 567 pass yards were the most ever for an FCS player against an FBS defense. At 458.3 yards per game, Zappe’s average ranked 101.3 yards above the leading FBS passer (Dillon Gabriel of UCF- 357 yards per game) in 2020.In 2019, HBU had one of the most explosive offenses in the FCS, ranking second in the Southland Conference and 12thnationally in total offense with 426.6 yards per game and third nationally in passing offense with 334.3 yards per game. As a junior, Zappe led the nation in completions and attempts per game, ranked second in passing yards per game and led the nation with 35 touchdown passes during the regular season.In 2018 under Kittley’s guidance, the Huskies’ offense averaged 27.4 points and 394.3 yards per game. As a sophomore, Zappe earned All-Southland Conference Honorable Mention, tying for the league lead with 23 touchdown passes and breaking the school career and single-season records for completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns. Receiver Jerreth Sterns also earned All-Conference honors, leading the league with 68 receptions.
WKU started the season with a bang, dropping 59 points against UT Martin. Since then, the Skyhawks have gone 9-0 and are currently No. 13 in the FCS rankings. The Hilltoppers then suffered a four-game losing streak against difficult competition (at Army, vs. Indiana, at Michigan State, vs. UTSA). Although WKU lost four straight games, the offense was not the cause of the skid. Kittley’s crew scored 35.8 points per game, but the Hilltoppers allowed 42.8 per contest. WKU stood with a 1-4 record, with the three of the four losses decided by a total of 11 points.Since then the Hilltoppers have won five straight and the average scoring margin has been 21.6 points. WKU’s offense has continued its tear, scoring 42.4 points per contest, while the defense has picked it up and held opponents to only 18.8 points per game. Now standing at 6-4, the Hilltoppers reached bowl eligibility for the 10th time in the past 11 seasons. And in the process of their win streak, WKU pushed its Conference USA record to 5-1 and the team now stands alone in first place in the league’s East Division. Two wins to cap the regular season would likely result in a C-USA Championship Game rematch at undefeated UTSA at the Alamodome.
In 2020, WKU ranked 114th in FBS with 19.0 points per game.In 2021, WKU ranks 7th in FBS with 41.4 points per game.The 22.4-point increase is more than double the previous year’s output. The next-best improvement is by Tennessee, who is 14.6 points better than last season.In 2020, WKU scored 2.0 offensive touchdowns per game.In 2021, WKU has scored 5.2 offensive touchdowns per game.In 2020, WKU ranked 111th in FBS with 164.3 passing yards per game.In 2021, WKU leads the nation with 423.7 passing yards per game, 43.2 yards above the next-best passing attack (Virginia, 380.7).The 423.7 passing yards per game would be the second-best number in FBS over the past five seasons (2019 Washington State, 437.2)In 2020, WKU had 15 passing plays of 20+ yards with three of those going for touchdowns.In 2021, WKU has 65 passing plays of 20+ yards with 19 of those going for touchdowns.The Hilltoppers have scored 31+ points and have at least three passing touchdowns in all 10 games this season. WKU has 458+ yards of total offense and 365+ passing yards in 9-of-10 games on the year.
Kittley’s protégé – quarterback Bailey Zappe – is the nation’s leading passer, despite it being his first season playing at the FBS level. Zappe is 342-of-483 (70.8%) for 4,170 passing yards, with 42 touchdowns compared to only seven interceptions. Zappe’s 4,170 passing yards (417 per game) leads the nation, as do his 42 touchdowns. Zappe’s 70.8% completion rate ranks fifth among FBS quarterbacks with 300+ attempts. Zappe’s 169.1 passing efficiency rating ranks fourth among FBS quarterbacks with 300+ attempts. Zappe has nine games of 365+ passing yards to lead FBS quarterbacks (Mississippi State’s Will Rogers is next with seven). Zappe has five games of 420+ passing yards to lead FBS (Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong is next with two).Zappe’s 417-yard average extrapolates to 5,421 over a 13-game season and 5,838 over a 14-game season, which would rank as the eighth or best-ever campaign by an FBS quarterback. Zappe’s 4.2-touchdown average extrapolates to 54 over a 13-game season and 59 over a 14-game season, which would tie for fourth or rank as second-best season ever by an FBS quarterback.Zappe’s favorite target – wide receiver Jerreth Sterns – is also on pace for an incredible season. Sterns has 111 receptions for 1,368 yards and 11 touchdowns. Sterns’ 111 catches lead the next-closest FBS receiver by 23 (USC’ Drake London has 88). Sterns’ 1,368 receiving yards rank second in FBS to Utah State’s Deven Thompkins (1,441). Sterns’ 11 touchdowns are tied for the FBS lead with four other receivers.Sterns’ 136.8-yard average extrapolates to 1,778 over a 13-game season and 1,915 over a 14-game season, which would rank as the 16th or fourth-best campaign ever by an FBS receiver. His 11.1-catch average extrapolates to 144 over a 13-game season and 155 over a 14-game season; either would rank as the third-best season ever by an FBS receiver.