Western Kentucky Hilltoppers Football — Analyzing WKU at UTSA
football Edit

Analyzing the Enemy: UTSA Roadrunners (C-USA Championship Edition)

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Day: Friday, December 3, 2021

Time: 6:00PM CST

Location: Alamodome

Network: CBS Sports Network

Betting line: WKU -3.5 | O/U: 73.0

History: This will be the third meeting between WKU and UTSA with the series split 1-1. The Roadrunners defeated the Hilltoppers in October by a score of 52-46.

Position Breakdown

Quarterbacks

Through twelve games, WKU's Bailey Zappe has completed 406-of-580 pass attempts (70.0%) for 4,968 yards, 414.0 yards per game, 8.6 yards per pass attempt, and 52 touchdowns as well as 9 interceptions. He ranks #1 in total passing yards, #1 in passing yards per game, #7 in completion percentage, #1 in passing touchdowns, and has the sixth-best passer rating in the nation. Zappe leads all of Conference USA's statistical passing categories. Of passers with at least 25 deep pass attempts, he ranks #2 in PFF's Highest passing grades on deep pass attempts (96.7).

Against Marshall, Zappe (as well as the entire offense) had an uncharacteristically slow and unproductive start. But Zappe came out of halftime on fire and didn't look back. On the day, Zappe went 25-of-48 (52.1%) for 328 yards, 6.8 yards per pass attempt, and 4 touchdowns.

WKU's passing game has a success rate of 53.8%, EPA/Pass of 0.264, PPA of 0.48, and explosiveness of 1.5.

Frank Harris leads the Roadrunners having completed 222-of-334 pass attempts (66.47%) for 2,688 yards, 224.0 yards per game, 8.0 yards per pass attempt, and 23 touchdowns as well as 5 interceptions. But what makes Harris dangerous, as WKU has experienced before, is his ability to make plays with his legs. He is the second leading rusher on the team with 94 carries for 484 yards, 40.33 yards per game, 5.1 yards per carry, and 5 touchdowns. During UTSA's loss to North Texas, Harris completed 7-of-14 (50.0%) pass attempts for 59 yards, 4.2 yards per carry, and no passing touchdowns; he added 10 carries for 97 yards, 9.7 yards per carry, and 1 rushing touchdown. However, after 3 fumbles, 1 lost fumble, and 1 sack, Harris sat out the second-half and was possibly a bit banged up. Harris is expected to play during the championship.

UTSA's passing game has a success rate of 46.2%, EPA/Pass of 0.178, PPA of 0.4, and explosiveness of 0.95.

Advantage: WKU

Receivers

As evident during last week's game, Marshall made it a priority to contain WKU's Jerreth Sterns. No matter, the receiver corps is still tremendously deep and productive behind Mitchell Tinsley, Daewood Davis, and Malachi Corley (as well as Dalvin Smith and tight end Joey Beljan).

Sterns ranks #2 nationally in total yards (1,539), #2 in receiving yards per game (128.25), tied at #2 in receiving touchdowns (12), #1 in total receptions (127), and #1 in receptions per game (10.6). Tinsley has also surpassed the 1,000-yard mark and has 71 receptions for 1,126 yards, 93.83 yards per game, 15.86 yards per reception, and 10 touchdowns. They are a 'yin-yang' combination that only makes the Air Raid all the more lethal. Sterns shines on screen passes and adds some major YAC while Tinsley impresses on deeper routes and jump balls.

Daewood Davis adds 38 receptions for 652 yards, 54.33 yards per game, 17.16 yards per reception, and 8 touchdowns. Malachi Corley accounts for 66 receptions, 650 yards, 54.17 yards per game, 9.85 yards per reception, and 7 touchdowns. On the season, the entire unit averages 12.4 yards per reception, 10 receivers have at least 1 touchdown, and ranks #12 in PFF's Grade for Pass Routes.

UTSA's key receivers are Zakhari Franklin, Joshua Cephus, and De'Corian Clark. Franklin leads with 67 receptions, 871 yards, 79.18 yards per game 13.0 yards per reception, and 10 touchdowns. It was Cephus and Clark, though, who gave the Tops trouble earlier this year. The two combined for 15 receptions, 243 yards, 16.2 yards per reception, and 4 touchdowns. Now through the regular season, Cephus is behind Franklin with 66 receptions, 758 yards, 63.17 yards per game, 11.48 yards per reception, and 6 touchdowns. Clark has 42 receptions, 624 yards, 52.0 yards per game, 14.86 yards per reception, and 5 touchdowns. The entire group averages 12.41 yards per reception, 8 receivers have at least 1 touchdown, and the group ranks #28 in PFF's Grade for Pass Routes.

Advantage: WKU

Running Backs

In the Hilltoppers' win over Marshall, the ground attack posted a season high 157 yards. Noah Whittington, who led with 69 yards and 4.9 yards per carry, also leads the ground game for the season with 90 carries, 452 yards, 37.6 yards per game, 5.0 yards per carry, and 1 touchdown. Adam Cofield has 80 carries for 372 yards, 31.0 yards per game, 4.7 yards per carry, and 4 touchdowns. Kye Robichaux totals 54 carries for 261 yards, 21.75 yards per game, 4.8 yards per carry, and 1 touchdown. Each bring a different element to the game; Whittington is quick and can create separation, Cofield is a good downhill runner, and Robicahux is a bit of a do-it-all.

Even in the Air Raid, the running backs are highly efficient with a success rate of 50.0%. They add a PPA of 0.12, EPA/Rush of -0.101, and explosiveness of 0.7.

The Roadrunners run at a 55.8% clip with Sincere McCormick leading the pack (and conference). Through twelve games, McMormick has 262 carries for 1,275 yards, 106.3 yards per game, 4.9 yards per carry, and 12 touchdowns. He's had seven 100+ yard games this season, including 120 against WKU. UTSA tends to go as far as McMormick can take them. In most of their tight games (as well as the loss to North Texas), McCormick averaged 76.0 yards per game. If the defense can successfully shut down McMormick then it likely leaves Harris to carry the team.

UTSA has a success rate of 44.1%, PPA of 0.14, EPA/Rush of 0.042, and explosiveness of 0.95.

Advantage: UTSA

Offensive Line

For six consecutive weeks, WKU remains #1 in PFF's Grade for Pass Blocking with a grade of 92.6. They also rank #52 in PFF's Grade for Run Blocking with a 71.3. WKU's o-line has allowed 12 sacks as well as a stuff rate of 12.0%.

UTSA's pass blocking ranks #105 with a PFF Grade of 51.9 while run blocking ranks #56 with a grade of 70.5. The Roadrunners' o-line has allowed 18 sacks as well as a stuff rate of 15.1%.

Advantage: WKU

Secondary

WKU's secondary has allowed 275-of-454 pass attempts (60.6%) for 3,143 yards (261.92 yards per game), 6.92 yards per pass attempt, and 17 passing touchdowns (1.4 passing touchdowns per game). Last week, the secondary held Marshall to 26-of-39 pass attempts (66.66%) for 199 yards, 5.1 yards per pass attempt, and 2 touchdowns. After a combined 13 interceptions in three games, the Tops added one more with a 45-yard pick six. WKU ranks #2 nationally in total interceptions with 19.

Antwon Kincade, A.J. Brathwaite Jr., Kahlef Hailassie, Miguel Edwards, Kaleb Oliver, Beanie Bishop, and Omari Alexander combine for 295 total tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, 11-of-19 interceptions, 23 pass breakups, 1 quarterback hurry, 2 fumble recoveries, and 2 forced fumbles. WKU ranks #19 in coverage with a PFF Grade of 84.8. They allow a passing success rate of 40.5%, PPA of 0.17, EPA/Pass of -0.016, and explosiveness of 1.4.

UTSA has allowed 197-of-339 pass attempts (58.1%) for 2,702 yards (225.17 yards per game), 7.97 yards per pass attempt, and 20 touchdowns as well as total 10 interceptions. They also allow a 40.0% success rate, PPA of 0.28, EPA/Pass of -0.014, and explosiveness of 1.7.

Rashad Wisdom, Antonio Parks, Corey Mayfield, Jahmal Sam, Ken Robinson, and Kelechi Nwachuku combine for 229 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, 4-of-10 interceptions, 21 pass breakups, 1 quarterback hurry, 3 fumbles recoveries, and 3 forced fumbles. Safety Rashad Wisdom leads the secondary and defense with 79.0 total tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, 1 quarterback hurry, and 1 forced fumble. The Roadrunners rank #99 in coverage with a PFF Grade of 60.1.

Harris' style of play is highly adaptable to whatever the defense brings. Excluding North Texas, he has three games in which he threw under 20 pass attempts and four games in which he threw over 35 pass attempts. He's had as many as 349 yards (vs. WKU) and as few as 118, 125, 186, and 193 yard games. Most of his yardage comes from short passes, but most of his touchdowns are from deep (20+ yard) passes. WKU's secondary cannot lose focus against a quarterback who can surprise and burn you on those deep throws.

Although UTSA has already faced WKU and is fully aware of Zappe's presence, through the six games after the first meeting, their opponents have averaged 21.6 pass attempts per game. Meanwhile, and after their first meeting, WKU has averaged 49.3 pass attempts per game. The 128.2% increase, coupled with WKU's passing efficiency, could be overwhelming to UTSA.

Advantage: Even

Linebackers

The Hilltoppers' linebacker corps is led by Will Ignont and Demetrius Cain. Ignont did not play against Marshall due to injury. The two combine for 85.0 total tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, 3 interceptions, 6 pass breakups, 3 quarterback hurries, and 1 fumble recovery. A balanced defense will be required to counter a balanced offense. The defense will need to focus equally on the run game and scrambling ability of Harris, while respecting his arm, as well.

UTSA's Trevor Harmanson, Jamal Ligon, Dadrian Taylor, Denzel Feaster, Clarence Hicks, and Charles Wiley combine for 243 total tackles, 31.0 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, 4-of-10 interceptions, 4 pass breakups, 13 quarterback hurries, 3 fumble recoveries, and 3 forced fumbles. Trevor Harmanson leads in total tackles with 55.0 while Clarence Hicks brings the pressure and leads the defense with 14.0 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks. With most of the pass rush coming from the linebackers, UTSA ranks #21 with a PFF Grade of 85.6.

Even with a stout linebacking corps, it will not be a cake-walk for the Roadrunners. They have to get past WKU's steadfast pass blocking and to the quick-thinking Zappe.

Advantage: UTSA

Defensive Line

WKU's rushing defense has allowed 467 carries for 1,793 yards, 149.4 yards per game, 3.8 yards per carry, and 22 touchdowns. Last week, they held Marshall to 40 carries for 126 yards, 3.15 yards per carry, and 1 touchdown.

During the game, they also continued to bring the pressure and accounted for 4-of-4 sacks, 6.5-of-8 tackles for loss, and 4-of-4 quarterback hurries.

On the season, the d-line has totaled 333 tackles, 44.5 tackles for loss, 24.0 sacks, 1 interception, 15 pass breakups, 25 quarterback hurries, 5 fumble recoveries, and 10 forced fumbles. The Hilltoppers' rushing defense ranks #75 with a PFF Grade of 67.3 and the pass rush ranks #77 with a PFF Grade of 74.0. They allow a rushing success rate of 46.8%, PPA of 0.16, EPA/Rush of 0.041, and explosiveness of 0.88. Defensive end DeAngelo Malone leads the line and defense with 79.0 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 6 quarterback hurries, and 4 forced fumbles.

UTSA's rushing defense has allowed 400 carries for 1,459 yards, 121.6 yards per game, 3.4 yards per carry, and 12 touchdowns. Their rushing defense ranks #20 with a PFF Grade of 81.7. To this point, they've allowed a rushing success rate of 40.5%, PPA of 0.88, EPA/Rush of -0.028, and explosiveness of 0.94. The d-line totals 150 total tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 9.0 sacks, 4 pass breakups, 18 quarterback hurries, 6 fumble recoveries, and 4 forced fumbles. Jaylon Haynes leads with 28.0 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, and 5 quarterback hurries.

Advantage: WKU

Special Teams

Punter John Haggerty has punted 29 times for 1,411 yards, 48.66 yards per punt, and has 10 punts land inside of the 20-yard line. Kicker Brayden Narveson is 20-of-23 on field goals and 61-of-61 on extra point kicks. Jerreth Sterns and DeAngelo Wilson combine for 14 punt returns, 145 return yards, and 10.4 yards per return. Beanie Bishop, Joey Beljan, Jakairi Moses, and JaQues Evans total 30 kickoff returns for 647 yards and 21.6 yards per return. Craig Burt Jr. recovered an onside kick an hauled it in for a kick return touchdown vs. Marshall. Kickoff specialist Cory Munson has 93 kickoffs for 5,470 yards, 58.8 yards per kickoff, 53 touchbacks, 5.0 tackles, and 1 successful onside kick.

UTSA's Lucas Dean has punted 41 times for 1,870 yards, 45.61 yards per punt, and has 18 punts inside of the 20-yard line. Kickers Hunter Duplessis and Everett Ornstein combine for 24-of-29 on field goals and Duplessis is 53-of-53 on extra point kicks. Sheldon Jones and Cade Stoever combine for 26 punt returns for 282 yards, 10.85 yards per return, and 1 punt return touchdown. Dadrian Taylor has 8 kickoff returns for 198 yards, and 24.75 yards per return.

Advantage: WKU

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Prediction

Although UTSA suffered their first loss of the season against North Texas, games against UAB and Southern Miss. revealed a few mistakes. And while WKU defeated Marshall to win the East, the first half was rough. Neither team's Game 12 performance is a reflection of how they've played all season.

WKU's only conference loss was against UTSA, and a rematch for the C-USA crown is what they want. Their defense isn't the same as it was the first half of the season and the offense has continued to dominate.

WKU has won seven-straight by a margin of 26.4 points. Until their loss to North Texas, UTSA had defeated opponents by a margin of 18.1 points. The Tops are riding a wave of defensive momentum and the offense has found and utilized even more weapons since the first meeting. The Roadrunners have a balanced offense - difficult to contain both McMormick and Harris - while the defense, albeit some issues as of late, can turn up the pressure and held opponents to an average 22.2 points this season.

Both teams have a high Eckel Rate, so this could be yet another high-scoring affair...this time on UTSA's turf.

WKU - 41

UTSA - 37

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