Every once in a while, there’s an individual who goes from obscurity to stardom or creates a path for others to follow. This is one of those occasions with Western Kentucky basketball player Bailey Zappe as he has created his own legacy and paved the way for future Hilltoppers after scoring 55 points against Morehead State on Saturday.
Bailey Zappe’s journey to a historic season for Western Kentucky has been one of the most interesting stories in college basketball. The transfer from Duke has helped lead the Hilltoppers to their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, as well as an undefeated conference record.
BAPTIST COACH IN HOUSTON When Vic Shealy called up Michael Zappe in January 2018, he was coming off a 1-10 season and in need of a new offensive coordinator. Bailey Zappe, Zappe’s son, was a freshman quarterback at Houston Baptist University who had had a similarly terrible season. Shealy predicted that changes would occur, but Bailey would remain the cornerstone. All he had to do was find out how to build around the quarterback.
“Do you chance to know anyone?” says the narrator. Before the two said their goodbyes, Shealy inquired.
Actually, Michael Zappe had someone in mind: a young man at Texas Tech, the son of the school’s famed track coach, who had spent the previous two years working with Davis Webb, Patrick Mahomes, and Kliff Kingsbury in an off-field capacity.
Zappe’s wife’s parents were acquainted with Zach Kittley’s parents. It’s a standard six degrees of Kevin Bacon problem in Texas, but Zappe decided it was worth a call.
“I don’t know anything about him,” Zappe informed Shealy, “but you should get in touch with him.”
Zappe’s phone rang again a few days later. “I adore this man!” said Shealy.
Bailey Zappe would go on to become one of the most prolific passers in college football history, thanks to Kittley’s play calling. It was just another in a remarkable series of small coincidences and seemingly coincidental twists of fate that converged to become one of the best college football stories of 2021.
Zappe will lead Western Kentucky against Appalachian State in the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl (11 a.m., ESPN/ESPN App) on Saturday, needing only four touchdown passes to set the all-time single-season FBS record. He’ll do it while running an offense devised by Kittley, who was just appointed as the new offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, bringing him full circle back to where he began after abandoning his basketball career. And if Zappe sets a new touchdown record, that historic throw is likely to fall into the hands of Jerreth Sterns, the nation’s most prolific receiver. Sterns almost played quarterback at Army and is now the nation’s most prolific receiver.
Sterns stated, “I wouldn’t say it’s fate.” “But it’s something along those lines. Every day, everyone of us texts. That chip is on our shoulder as well. We have the same perspective on the game. And I believe that adds to its uniqueness.”
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Zappe remarked, “He told I’d be tossing the ball 40 or 50 times a game.” “All I wanted to hear was that. But, to be honest, anything was preferable to what I did my freshman year.”
Sterns had committed to Army, where he expected to play quarterback in an option scheme, but Kittley made a similar pitch to entice the quick receiver to Houston Baptist, promising 50 to 60 receptions each year.
The revised Air Raid system yielded results in 2018. Zappe threw for a total of 23 touchdowns. Sterns has a total of 68 receptions. Zappe threw for 35 touchdowns and over 4,000 yards in 2019, with Sterns catching 105 passes. The 2020 season was supposed to be the pinnacle, but when the epidemic struck, the possibility of a season vanished completely.
Because to the COVID-19 epidemic in the summer of 2020, most FBS teams have relocated their schedule to the spring. A few clubs, on the other hand, choose to play just non-conference games during the autumn season. This meant three consecutive games against FBS competition for Houston Baptist, including a road trip to Texas Tech.
For Kittley, Zappe, and Sterns, the game would represent a watershed moment.
Texas Tech surged out to a 21-3 lead early in the game, looking like they were on their way to a landslide victory in a game they were favorite to win by 40 points. Then there’s the magic.
“In that game, we did a lot of things we’d never done before,” Kittley remarked.
In the second quarter, Zappe threw a 65-yard touchdown pass, followed by another 65-yarder in the third. After Texas Tech took a 15-point lead early in the fourth quarter, Zappe answered with a 75-yard touchdown pass to Sterns’ younger brother, Josh, to close the deficit once again. With 3:23 left in the game, Zappe’s last touchdown pass was a 6-yarder to Jerreth Sterns, but his two-point attempt was unsuccessful.
Texas Tech 35, Houston Baptist 33 is the final score.
Zappe and co. had exploited the platform to gain the attention of a much larger audience, despite the loss.
“For all of us, it was a kind of a coming-out celebration,” Zappe remarked. “We placed HBU on the map, as well as ourselves. That game sparked our interest, and we began to consider if we could play at a larger institution. A lot of what’s happening today can be traced back to that game. As a result, I’m grateful that Texas Tech decided to play us.”
Zappe threw 15 touchdown passes and just one interception in four games, averaging over 460 passing yards per game.
He started thinking about 2021 and all the things Houston Baptist will bring back after his season finished in early October. He believed there was a chance for an FCS title run. But there was also the possibility that he might do more.
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Of course, Kittley believed in his plan, but it was an aspirational figure. It took three years for the offense at Houston Baptist to find its stride. Is it possible for him to transform the Hilltoppers into a scoring machine in only one offseason?
Zappe, too, had high plans. When Kittley announced his move to WKU, Zappe entered the transfer portal with an FBS club in mind. He went on a hunting vacation with his father, hoping to get some rest before deciding what to do next.
Zappe, on the other hand, spent the whole journey taking calls.
Michael Zappe stated, “It exploded out.” “He was on the phone for the whole four or five days.”
He’d hang up the phone and grin at his father. Tennessee had contacted me. Notre Dame had contacted me. South Carolina had contacted me. USC had reached out to me. Michael Zappe thought his kid earned all of this attention when he graduated from high school, but it arrived a few years later than intended.
Zappe was considering Tennessee at first, but following a coaching change and the potential of NCAA fines, he changed his mind.
Jerreth Sterns of Western Kentucky has 137 catches, 39 more than any other FBS receiver entering Saturday’s bowl game. Icon Sportswire/Ken Murray
Jerreth and Josh Sterns, who had previously pledged to accompany Kittley to Western Kentucky, also opted to transfer. The more Zappe considered it, the more sense it made. He was familiar with the coach, the plan, and the receivers. If he wanted to try his hand at FBS greatness, this was the best bet he could make.
Zappe phoned Kittley and informed him of the situation. It was the moment Kittley realized he could keep his word.
In 2021, the Hilltoppers scored 40 points or more nine times and ended with a 43.1 point per game average. Only Ohio State had a better record. Sterns has 137 catches, which is 39 more than any other FBS receiver, while Zappe has passed for 5,545 yards (almost 1,100 more than the No. 2 quarterback, fellow Air Raid quarterback Will Rogers at Mississippi State) and 56 touchdowns, which is four less than Joe Burrow’s FBS record.
“I could see right away when Bailey arrived here and we began chatting that he was a man that works on a whole other level,” Helton said. “I knew we were going to blast this thing out of the water at that point.”
On Nov. 27, Bailey Zappe went seeking for Zach Kittley to congratulate him after Western Kentucky defeated Marshall to earn a berth in the Conference USA championship game. Together, they’ve put together a remarkable season. Ben Queen is a sports reporter for USA TODAY.
Zappe has averaging 427 throwing yards and 4.3 touchdowns per game this season. He’ll establish the FBS single-season record in each if he matches his averages in the Boca Raton Bowl. Graham Harrell, Case Keenum, Anthony Gordon, and B.J. Symons are just a few of the quarterbacks he’ll pass on.
However, categorizing Kittley’s plan and Zappe’s implementation as just Air Raid seems too basic.
Of course, there are elements from Hal Mumme’s initial plan that have been passed down to Mike Leach and Kingsbury. However, this is more of an Air Raid 3.0 scenario.
Helton remarked, “We’ve created a blueprint for a new sort of Air Raid.” “It’s not as simple as lining up four wide and sprinting. We’re using every piece we have, and it’s causing a lot of issues for defenders.”
Western Kentucky puts their tight ends to good use. The Hilltoppers don’t run much, but three players have logged at least 50 carries this season. Kittley’s style has evolved to fit the talents around him, with distinct formations and personnel combinations masking plays. It’s not about tossing the ball as much as possible; rather, it’s about how creative the offense can be with the ball.
Kittley’s alma mater also expressed interest in the plan. Kittley was appointed as offensive coordinator by new Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire on Dec. 5, a return to his origins for the boy who grew up watching Leach’s Air Raid systems. Nonetheless, he’ll be alongside Zappe, Sterns, and Western Kentucky for one last ride against Appalachian State before focusing on the Red Raiders.
Zappe isn’t seen as a result of a gimmicky system by NFL scouts. The 22-year-old senior, who stands 6-1 and weighs 220 pounds, has the physique of an NFL quarterback, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper, who rates Zappe sixth among quarterbacks eligible for this year’s selection.
Sterns, on the other hand, has cemented his reputation as one of the game’s most elusive receivers. Sterns has 1,041 yards after the catch this season in an offense geared to get him into space. It’s a total yardage total that would put him ahead of all but 28 other receivers in 2021.
“The Air Raid is misunderstood,” Zappe said. “This isn’t the case. [Kittley] has created his own wrinkles, and I’m sure we’ll be talking about coach Kittley’s Air Raid tree in ten years.”
Zappe is happy to be one of the tree’s roots, but what he remembers most about this trip with Kittley and Sterns is how they’ve made each other better — each component essential to navigating this winding road.
Last month, when Zappe was walking off the field after Western Kentucky defeated Marshall to earn a berth in the Conference USA championship game, he ran into his two football teammates. There was a sense of relief at first, according to Zappe. How many naysayers had they disproved along the way? How many instructors had failed to see them? How many times did the entire recipe come crashing down if destiny hadn’t interfered in exactly the perfect way? However, this soon gave way to exhilaration. They’d gone on the journey together, and that was what made it so enjoyable.
“It justifies all we’ve gone through,” Zappe remarked. “It was incredible to have all three of us together at that moment. It seemed strange.”
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