Homecoming could not have gone much better for No. 17 Michigan State with a dismantling 48-31 win over Western Kentucky.
For the third game this season, Michigan State scored on its first touch of the ball. Instead of a 75-yard touchdown run or a flea-flicker, MSU did it in a unique way by initially forcing a three-and-out and then returning a punt for an 88-yard touchdown. It was a booming punt by WKU punter John Haggerty, but maybe went too far as he outkicked the coverage and junior wide receiver Jayden Reed danced his way down the field for the touchdown.
The punt return was Reed’s second consecutive for a touchdown dating back to his clutch return last week versus Nebraska in the 4th quarter and 88 yards was the 4th longest punt return in school history.
On the ensuing drive, Michigan State’s defense forced another three-and-out and MSU’s offense took the field for the first time. A trio of screen passes to junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor and a 46-yard pass to Reed set up a five-yard touchdown run for junior running back Kenneth Walker III, giving the Spartans a 14-0 lead with just 6:34 taken off the clock.
Western Kentucky’s offense finally woke up with the two-touchdown deficit, answering with a 37-yard field goal. The next two drives were quick ones with both lasting no longer than 1:10. First it was Michigan State, when quarterback Payton Thorne found Reed wide open down the right sideline for a 46-yard touchdown pass. Then Western Kentucky bounced back with a four-yard passing touchdown from quarterback Bailey Zappe following a 60-yard pass on the opening play of the drive, bringing the score to 21-10 and ending a first quarter bonanza.
But the bonanza continued into the second quarter with nearly as many points scored in the quarter.
Michigan State’s offense continued to roll, with all three of its drives ending in a rushing touchdown. Two of them came from Walker, who hurdled a WKU defender on his way to the pylon for his second of three touchdowns on the game, and the other came from Thorne from 10 yards out.
The Hilltoppers had two successful drives of its own with two trips to the redzone. MSU’s “bend don’t break” defense stayed true to its style though forcing two field goals instead of touchdowns and the Spartans led 42-16 at the half.
As the game was still in the balance in the beginning of the second half, Western Kentucky drove all the way down the field looking to get back into the game with a touchdown. They got down to MSU’s three, but back-to-back penalties pushed the Hilltoppers to the 23. Western Kentucky elected to go for it on fourth down and 20 to go, but a completion from Zappe to wide receiver Jerreth Sterns came up one yard short of the goal line and MSU took over on downs.
Like they had all night, MSU's offense took advantage of the possession and turned it into points. The Spartans marched all the way down the field until the drive stalled on Western Kentucky's three. MSU kicker Matt Coghlin hit the chip shot field goal, and Michigan State took a commanding 45-16 lead.
To the Hilltoppers’ credit they did not give up despite the score. Following the Coghlin field goal, Western Kentucky scored two straight touchdowns to bring the game within two possessions with just over eight minutes to go. The efforts were too little too late
The entire Michigan State offense looked back to form Saturday night after a disappointing performance last weekend. Walker finished the game with 126 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. The passing game also was spectacular with MSU's three stars shining. Nailor and Reed both went for over 127 yards while Payton Thorne completed 20 of 30 passes for 327 yards and one passing and one rushing touchdown.
Michigan State redshirt freshman linebacker Cal Haladay was ejected midway through the fourth quarter, meaning he will also miss the first half of next week's game. He was playing well, making 10 tackles on top of a forced and recovered fumble.
With the win, the No. 17 Spartans will take their 5-0 record to Piscataway, New Jersey to take on Rutgers next Saturday.
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