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Preview: No. 17 Michigan State hosting Western Kentucky for homecoming

October 2, 2021

Michigan State defeats University of Nebraska 23-20 on Sept. 25, 2021.

After narrowly squeaking by Nebraska last Saturday night in a 23-20 overtime win, No. 17 Michigan State stays at home this week as they welcome the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers for homecoming weekend. 

The Spartans did not play their best against Nebraska, relying on junior wide receiver Jayden Reed's punt return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to force overtime and a junior cornerback Chester Kimbrough interception in overtime to seal the deal. Nebraska’s front-seven was much more physical than MSU’s offensive players and schematically they looked prepared for every play the Spartans threw at them. 

But, they ultimately got the win. It can be looked at as a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty mindset.

Michigan State fans can feel discouraged based on the performance last week or they can feel encouraged that they got the win even with such a poor performance offensively. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson will need to be more creative with the play-calling on Saturday in order to keep Western Kentucky’s defense on its toes.  

Junior running back Kenneth Walker III was held in check by the Cornhuskers, carrying the ball 19 times for a modest 61 yards. However, Walker still leads the country in rushing yards with 554 total yards. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne had his worst performance as a starter tossing for 183 yards, one touchdown and one interception. 

The Spartans’ offense could not stay on the field, resulting in Michigan State’s defense playing a lot of snaps, particularly in the second half. Senior safety Xavier Henderson made an astonishing 17 total tackles last week, catapulting himself to 10th in the country for total tackles (42). 

Scouting the opponent

For a non-Power 5 team, Western Kentucky cannot be taken lightly. Led by Head Coach Tyson Helton and playing out of the Conference USA, the Hilltoppers bring in a 1-2 record with its lone win against UT Martin. 

Western Kentucky’s two losses have come against quality opponents: Army (4-0) and Indiana (2-2). Both losses have been extremely competitive with a three-point loss to Army and a two-point loss to Indiana last week. 

The identity of this team is quite clear. They display a high-powered, air raid offense that lights up the scoreboard. 

It begins not with Western Kentucky, but Houston Baptist. The Hilltoppers essentially took Houston Baptist’s offense and transplanted it into Western Kentucky. Offensive coordinator Zach Kittley was hired from Houston Baptist in December of 2020, bringing over the aerial attack that he helped coach at Texas Tech with now-Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Patrick Mahomes II until 2018. Soon after, quarterback Bailey Zappe and wide receivers Ben Ratzlaff and brothers Josh and Jerreth Sterns followed on the pilgrimage to Bowling Green, Kentucky. 

In 2020, Zappe threw for 1,833 yards, 15 touchdowns and one interception in just four games for Houston Baptist. This year, he has put up similar production through the Hilltoppers three games throwing for 1,224 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions on nearly 40 pass attempts per game. Jerreth Sterns has been Zappe’s top target so far, grabbing 23 balls for 360 yards and four touchdowns. 

For Michigan State, their corners and safeties will have to be locked-in and ready to play for the air raid. However, Michigan State’s secondary lost some depth earlier this week when redshirt junior Kalon Gervin entered the transfer portal. 

“Certainly they have some very good players,” Tucker said. “I am not talking about just two or three. They have a bunch of guys that can play and they are well coached in all three phases. I think that everyone knows this program is about winning.” 

Where Western Kentucky is exposable is on their defense. Last week, Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was able to connect on intermediate 10-20 yard passes all night long. MSU’s speedy wide receiver duo of Reed and Jalen Nailor and perhaps even tight ends Connor Heyward and Tyler Hunt should be able to exploit the weakness in the secondary.

In addition, Western Kentucky surrenders a putrid 224.7 rushing yards per game, suggesting a potential bounce-back game for Walker. 

Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and can be found on television on the Big Ten Network.

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