5 things to watch in Michigan State vs Western Kentucky and a final score prediction
Michigan State still has one non-conference game on the schedule and a chance to enter the rest of the Big Ten game with an unblemished record.
The No.17 Spartans (4-0, 2-0 Big Ten) host Western Kentucky (1-2) on Saturday (7:30 p.m., BTN) for their return home to East Lansing.
Michigan State comes off a 23-20 overtime victory over Nebraska last week while Western Kentucky had lower thwarted offers in each of the last two games with a 38-35 loss to Army and a 33-31 loss to Indiana. The Hilltoppers are propelled by an enhanced offense and that comes to the attention of the Spartans, who are on their guard against an upheaval.
Here are five things to watch out for and a prediction for the game:
Execute the renaissance of the game
The key to Michigan State’s improved offense this season has been running play. Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III only needed one game to run more yards than anyone on the squad all last season and he spent the first three weeks arguing quickly to be considered a candidate. at the Heisman Trophy.
Nebraska put the pincers on Walker as he finished with just 61 yards on 19 carries and 23 of those yards came in Michigan State’s first overtime game to set up Matt Coghlin’s winning basket. The drop in production was accompanied by difficulties on the offensive line and Walker was encountered several times in the backfield.
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Walker will have the full attention of every team against Michigan State this season while Jordon Simmons is a capable substitute. Being aware of Walker is one thing, stopping him is another. He has 76 carries for 554 yards and five touchdowns and leads the nation in rushing with 138.5 yards per game.
Western Kentucky ranks 120th of 130 teams nationwide in rushing defense with 224.7 yards per game with nine rushing touchdowns. The Hilltoppers allowed over 100 rushing yards in each of the first three games, including 201 against UT Martin, an FCS program, and 339 against Army.
Walker should be able to find an open space to run around and break large pieces. That will be necessary to trigger an attack that clicked before it was completely stopped in the second half against Nebraska with five three-and-outs on five possessions and just 14 yards on 15 plays in the combined third and fourth quarters.
Back on track
In three games, Payton Thorne showed why he won the Michigan State quarterback competition coming out of fall camp. He was efficient and non-rotating and joined Connor Cook (2015) as the only player in the program’s history to throw four touchdowns in consecutive games.
In addition to throwing his first interception of the year on opening possession against Nebraska, Thorne had a strong first half and completed 12 of 15 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown. The sophomore redshirt did not look the same in the second half as it was only 2 for 8 passing 12 yards while being off target on several shots.
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The second half against the Cornhuskers was the first time Thorne and offense struggled this season, and he took responsibility for it. He’s only got five career starts and has completed 62 percent of his passes for 909 yards, 10 touchdowns and just one interception this season, so it’s not worth making a big deal on a halftime. That said, it will be important for Thorne to fall behind last week and pick up the pace. If the racing game returns to its previous efficiency, it will only make life much easier for Thorne.
Much emphasis has been placed on the fact that Michigan State’s offensive was virtually non-existent in the second half against Nebraska. It’s also worth pointing out that the Spartans didn’t convert on opportunities in the opening 30 minutes.
Michigan State made two trips to the red zone in the first half, but was content with short goals in both. At first, Thorne couldn’t find an open receiver and was sacked third and fourth yards off the Nebraska 5-yard line. The next drive, the Spartans jumped offside on the second and the goal of 4 and that was followed by two incomplete passes. A bad snap also led to a failed field goal attempt at the end of the half.
Michigan State settled for a 13-10 halftime lead as capitalizing on their opportunities could have resulted in a 24-10 advantage. Western Kentucky is going to score points and the Spartans need to take advantage of their chances, especially if it ends up being a shootout.
Getting to ZappÃ©
Western Kentucky coach Tyson Helton needed to improve his offense after last year and did so with heavy reliance on an FCS program. He hired Zach Kittley as the offensive coordinator to bring the Houston Baptist Air Raid attack on and the program added the transfer of Houston Baptist quarterback Bailey Zappe and a trio of his receivers.
The changes are notable as the Hilltoppers have gone from an average of 19.0 points and 290.3 total yards of attack per game last year to 41.7 points and 507.3 yards this season. Zappe completed 73.1% of his passes (87 for 119) for 1,224 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions and ranks second in the country for passing yards per game (408.0) and third for efficiency (odds 192.2).
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With Western Kentucky averaging just 81.3 yards per rushing game, Zappe is the offense. He gets the ball out quickly and the Hilltoppers have allowed just four sacks this year.
Michigan State Defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazelton said pressure was key to slowing down western Kentucky. It can be tough and it looks like starting defensive end Drew Beesley could be out for a while with a leg injury, but the Spartans have improved their pass rush. They had seven sacks against Nebraska and are tied for fifth in the country with an average of four sacks per game. Jacub Panasiuk and Jeff Pietrowski are expected to get the most snaps from the defensive end, Jacob Slade and Simeon Barrow are among those who can push from the middle while linebacker Quavaris Crouch and safety Xavier Henderson each have two sacks.
Limit the damage
Western Kentucky has allowed several sacks in a single game this year (three by the military), so don’t expect Michigan State to post seven for the second week in a row.
Zappe is third nationally with 29 goals per game and eighth nationally in completion percentage. He is comfortable leading the attack and quickly getting rid of the ball at his receivers to make plays in space. Zappe’s main target is former Houston Baptist teammate Jerreth Sterns, who leads West Kentucky with 23 catches for 360 yards and four touchdowns.
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Limiting the yards after the catch and creating long down downs and distance will be key and it should be noted that West Kentucky is second in the country with the third down conversion percentage at 57.8. Michigan state security Xavier Henderson said tackling the open field will be essential and that’s what the team has been working on all week.
A good example of this came last week with Nebraska facing third and sixth at the end of the fourth quarter of a draw. Adrian Martinez threw to Samori Toure, who was immediately greeted by cornerback Ronald Williams for a 2-yard gain to force a punt.
Western Kentucky can’t slow Walker, who runs over 150 yards and at least two touchdowns. Thorne looks like he did in the first three games of the season and throws several touchdown passes without interceptions. Zappe and his receivers do damage but not enough and the Spartans get key saves and a few turnovers. Michigan State 38, Western Kentucky 24
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