Houston Baptist University will not be playing in Friday’s Conference USA championship game at the Alamodome. At least not officially. Folks these days are sticklers about protocol. So, for the official record, it’s UTSA versus Western Kentucky. No ticket, billboard, or television ad will so much as mention Houston Baptist.
Only it’s not that simple, and once you know the whole story, you might be inclined to think HBU deserves at least a couple of sideline passes, plus VIP parking and tickets to the pregame buffet.
Let’s cut to the chase: Western Kentucky does not get to this game without some huge contributions from Houston Baptist. It’s why Western Kentucky averaged 43.2 points per game, second in the country behind only Ohio State, and why the school led the nation in passing yards and passing touchdowns on its way to a 7–1 conference record.
First, there’s Zach Kittley, Western Kentucky’s thirty-year-old offensive coordinator and one of college football’s rising stars, as well as the architect of the offense that put up all those points this season. The two star operators within Kittley’s attack are quarterback Bailey Zappe, who threw 52 touchdown passes in twelve games, and wide receiver Jerreth Sterns, who caught 127 passes for 1,539 yards and twelve touchdowns. Two other Western Kentucky wideouts, Josh Sterns (Jerreth’s brother) and Ben Ratzlaff, caught 26 passes between them.
Guess where Kittley coached—and all of those athletes played—last season. Houston Baptist? Correct. Faster than you can say “transfer portal,” Western Kentucky’s total offense is up to 525 yards per game after averaging 291 last season. Thank you, Houston Baptist.
“It was like the perfect storm of all the pieces of the puzzle coming together,” Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton told the Athletic. “It’s played out perfectly.”
After an underwhelming 5–7 season in 2020, Helton was determined to remake an offense that averaged twenty points per game and ranked 117th in the country in yards per play. He knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted Mike Leach. Or Kliff Kingsbury. Neither of those “air raid” gurus being available, he went looking for an offensive coordinator who knew the pass-happy offense inside and out.
The Houston Baptist offensive stats—33.75 points and 459.5 passing yards per game—caught his attention. Kittley, who also served as offensive coordinator when he was with the Huskies, had the right coaching DNA, having spent three seasons working for Kingsbury at Texas Tech when Patrick Mahomes was there.
“I thought he was the perfect guy to come in and be able to mold what we currently do with what they did,” Helton told the Louisville Courier Journal, “and I think we’re at a good place. I really like where we’re at offensively.”
Helton’s plan was to lure Kittley to Western Kentucky and bet on a little of that air raid magic. What happened next seems almost magical in hindsight. No sooner was Kittley out the door at Houston Baptist than his players began signing up for the NCAA transfer portal.
When Kittley first decamped for Bowling Green, he didn’t plan on having so many foundational players from his Huskies offense follow him to Western Kentucky. “Love all those guys,” he said. “Really, a shock, to be honest with you. Wasn’t expecting all four, that’s for sure.”
Quarterback Zappe, in particular, had offers from several more prominent schools. Tennessee, Texas Tech, Notre Dame, and South Carolina all expressed interest. What none of them offered was a chance to continue working with Kittley. “I had a few other offers and I was a little bit interested,” Zappe said, “but my heart was really here at WKU and coming here and playing under coach Kittley for another year. That’s the decision I made, and so far it’s turned out great.”
His arrival at Western Kentucky changed expectations. He fulfilled them, too, by leading the nation in touchdown passes (52) and passing yardage (4,993). He also completed 70 percent of his throws, and his coaches are pushing hard to get him into the Heisman Trophy conversation.
“The stats don’t lie,” Kittley said this week. “To me, what I’ve seen the last ten years or so with the Heisman Trophy, first and foremost you have to be a winner and you do have to have the stats to back that up. I don’t think there’s any better person out there than Bailey Zappe. Statistically, it’s not even close, no one’s in the same ballpark as he is. He’s the best quarterback in the country, and he deserves to be there.”
Zappe threw five touchdown passes when UTSA beat Western Kentucky 52–46 on October 9. The Hilltoppers have won seven in a row since.
“I think he’s a top-five quarterback in the country,” Helton told the Bowling Green Daily News in October. “I think the nation needs to know about him, and I think by the end of the season they’re all going to recognize he’s one of the top five quarterbacks in the country. He elevates the play of everybody. That’s a generational quarterback, in my opinion.”
As for that other offensive star, wide receiver Jerreth Sterns made the 850-mile move from Houston to Bowling Green, Kentucky, because of his bond with Zappe. “It’s truly just a blessing, honestly, just to be even in this position,” he told the Bowling Green Daily News. “I never thought I’d be playing FBS football, and to be doing it alongside my little brother and Bailey, who I’ve come to be best friends with, it’s honestly just a great feeling.”
All this Texas seasoning is an interesting side plot to the Conference USA Championship Game. UTSA coach Jeff Traylor proudly notes: “I’m a Texas high school football coach with seven Texas high school assistants and a bunch of Texas high school players.”
Western Kentucky, to paraphrase Jimmy Buffett, has a little Texas in its heart too. Kittley grew up outside of Lubbock in Frenship and attended Abilene Christian University before transferring to Texas Tech. Zappe is from Victoria. Jerreth and Josh Sterns hail from Waxahachie.
When Western Kentucky and UTSA faced off in a conference matchup back in October, the game turned into an absolute shootout. The lead changed hands six times in the game, whose result wasn’t decided until UTSA safety Clarence Hicks intercepted a Zappe pass at the three-yard line with 43 seconds left and sealed a 52–46 Roadrunners victory. That loss was the lone conference defeat for the Hilltoppers this season.
After squeezing past Western Kentucky, UTSA appeared to be headed toward an undefeated regular season record, until last weekend, when that dream ended with a stunning 45–23 loss to the University of North Texas. Heading into a rematch with Western Kentucky with the conference championship on the line, Traylor said he won’t have to remind his players how good the Hilltoppers are.
“That quarterback, I told you how good he was,” he said. “We don’t know how to stop them. Nobody does. The last time we beat them, we played as well as we have offensively. You just have to prepare yourself that they might get theirs. My defense might not want to hear it. They’ll be coming guns blazing.”
And that firepower will be fueled by a healthy dose of Houston Baptist.