Western Kentucky will face its second consecutive Big Ten opponent when it travels to East Lansing to take on No. 17 Michigan State on Saturday night.
Last Saturday, the Hilltoppers (1-2) hosted Indiana. After falling behind 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, they were able to cut the deficit to two points twice in the third quarter. The teams traded touchdowns in the fourth quarter, leaving WKU two points short in the end.
The Spartans (4-0), meanwhile, had an up-and-down game against Nebraska. They entered halftime leading 13-10 after gaining 233 yards. For all practical purposes, the offense never emerged for the second half. The Cornhuskers limited the Spartans to 14 yards and no first downs. MSU relied on its defense and special teams to win.
This will be the first meeting between Western Kentucky and Michigan State. The Hilltoppers have lost all eight previous meetings with teams from the Big Ten. The Spartans hold a 2-1 record versus members of Conference USA, the last meeting being a 55-18 victory over UAB in 2007.
WKU at No. 17 Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan State -10
When WKU Has the Ball
Quarterback Bailey Zappe has enjoyed a very productive season through three games. The senior has completed 87 of 119 passes for 1,224 yards, 13 touchdowns, and two interceptions. Against Indiana, he connected on 31 of 44 passes for 365 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions or sacks. He has also added 52 rushing yards on eight attempts when factoring out the three sacks he's taken.
The Hilltoppers have divided up the carries when rushing the ball. Adam Cofield leads the team in carries (23), rushing yards (82), and rushing touchdowns (two). Noah Whittington ranks second on the squad with 14 rushing attempts for 74 yards.
Three of Western Kentucky's wide receivers have benefitted from Zappe's high level of production. Jerreth Sterns leads the Hilltoppers in receptions (23), receiving yards (360), and receiving touchdowns (four). Malachi Corley has caught 20 passes for 184 yards, and Mitchell Tinsley has brought in 14 receptions for 219 yards. Tinsley and Corley each have caught two touchdown passes.
Michigan State's defense has been exploited a great deal by opponents. Opponents have picked up 23.8 first downs per game, ranking 116th in the entire FBS. The Spartans rank 107th in the FBS in pass defense with 265 yards allowed per game. MSU's rush defense has played much tougher, as the group ranks 55th by allowing 131 yards per game.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Kenneth Walker III led the FBS in rushing yards heading into the game against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers effectively bottled up Walker in regulation, allowing only 39 yards on 17 carries. He did break loose on the Spartans' first offensive play of overtime for a 23-yard run.
Western Kentucky has shown much vulnerability to opponents' ground attacks. WKU has allowed 224.7 rushing yards per game, 120th in the FBS. The Hilltoppers have surrendered three rushing touchdowns per game, which is 123rd.
Payton Thorne, like the entire Spartans offense, struggled against the Cornhuskers. He only completed 14 pass attempts for 183 yards, his lowest totals in both categories so far this season. He also threw his first interception of the year.
Jayden Reed outshone the rest of the Spartans against Nebraska, both on offense and special teams. He provided the only offensive touchdown by catching a 35-yard flea-flicker early in the second quarter. He returned two kickoffs for a total of 69 yards. He also returned a punt 62 yards to the end zone to force the game into overtime. In total, he leads MSU in receptions (16), receiving yards (336), receiving touchdowns (four) while averaging 30.3 yards per kickoff return and 27.5 per punt return.
The Hilltoppers went head-to-head on their home field with Indiana. Although WKU could never grab the lead at any point, the team cut the deficit to 14-7 early in the second and remained within seven points for the rest of the game. Will that performance engender confidence to upset a Big Ten opponent or leave them focused on a win that was so close to happening?
As a result of its thrilling overtime victory against Michigan State, the Spartans have risen to the top of the Big Ten standings and into the mid-teens in both major polls. Can they ignore the growing hype around them and focus on defeating a non-conference opponent from the Group of 5?
Prediction: Michigan State 37, WKU 27
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— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.