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Game Preview: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers vs. Michigan State Spartans

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 17-ranked Michigan State Spartans bring a perfect 4-0 record into this weekend’s matchup against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (1-2) for the 2021 homecoming game. The Spartans will play under the lights for the second consecutive week, and third time this season, with a 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time (well, 7:40 p.m., if we want to be technical) kickoff at Spartan Stadium. The game will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. This is the first ever meeting between the two programs.

Let’s be clear about one thing — Western Kentucky is not a Group of Five cupcake program. The Hilltoppers run an air raid offense and are going to challenge the Spartans in the passing game. Expect Western Kentucky to pick up a lot of yards through the air, but the question is whether or not Michigan State can keep the Hilltoppers off of the scoreboard — something the Spartans have done well this season. Western Kentucky gave Indiana a run for its money last week, narrowly losing by a final score of 33-31. Don’t expect the Hilltoppers to be afraid to come to East Lansing. Michigan State, on the other hand, narrowly defeated Nebraska in overtime last week.

MSU has to be focused on defeating WKU, and can’t be looking ahead to the upcoming Big Ten slate, or else an upset is quite plausible.

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2021 Record — 4-0 (2-0 in Big Ten)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 453.5 total yards, 238 passing yards, 215.5 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 396.5 total yards allowed, 264 passing yards allowed, 132.5 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 141 (35.25 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 72 (18 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 30th

Western Kentucky:
2021 Record — 1-2 (0-0 in Conference USA)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 507.3 total yards, 426 passing yards, 81.3 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 439.7 yards allowed, 215 passing yards allowed, 224.7 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 125 (41.67 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 92 (30.67 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 39th

Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: N/A (Saturday is the first ever meeting between the two programs)
Current streak: N/A
Last Michigan State Win: N/A
Last Western Kentucky Win: N/A
Michigan State all-time record: 714-470-44 (.599)
Western Kentucky all-time record: 589–413–31 (.585)

Uniform Watch:

It’s “Gruff Sparty” time! Michigan State will rock white helmets with the “Gruff Sparty” logo design on both sides. The Spartans will also wear green jerseys with white lettering, white pants with a thin green stripe down the side and white cleats with the green Nike “Swoosh symbol. These uniforms are fantastic.

A closer look at this week’s threads:

Western Kentucky is going with white jerseys with red lettering. The Hilltoppers will also wear black pants and shiny chrome helmets.

Previous Game Results

Michigan State 23, Nebraska 20, overtime

For really the first time this season, Michigan State found itself in a close battle. It wasn’t pretty, but the Spartans found a way to win, defeating the Nebraska Cornhuskers in overtime. Fans striped Spartan Stadium with alternating green and white sections, and had “The Woodshed” rocking.

The Cornhuskers brought the fight to the Spartans, though, playing stout defense and holding MSU to only 14 yards (including one yard in the fourth quarter) and zero first downs in the second half. When Nebraska took a 20-13 lead on an Adrian Martinez touchdown run with 7:33 in the fourth quarter, it was Michigan State’s special teams and defensive units that stepped up when the offense couldn’t.

Jayden Reed returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown with 4:49 left to play. That score tied the game at 20 (following the extra point) and eventually forced overtime. Then it was Florida cornerback Chester Kimbrough’s turn to make a play, picking off Martinez on the third play of the extra period, and nearly returning it for a touchdown. Kimbrough was stopped just short, though, but Kenneth Walker III took his first carry of overtime 23 yards, which eventually set Matt Coghlin up for a game-winning field goal attempt. Coghlin drilled it from 21 yards out, and the Spartans won an incredibly tight game.

Indiana 33, Western Kentucky 31

Indiana jumped out to a 14-0 lead over Western Kentucky in the first quarter before the Hilltoppers got on the board with an Adam Cofield touchdown run early in the second quarter to cut IU’s lead in half. The Hoosiers then scored a pair of field goals before the Tops got on the board again from a Bailey Zappe touchdown pass to Daewood Davis. Indiana added another field goal before halftime, and took a 23-14 lead into the locker rooms.

Western Kentucky got the ball to start the second half, and score quickly scored on a touchdown throw from Zappe to Dalvin Smith, making it 23-21, Hoosiers. Indiana got another field goal in the third quarter, while WKU added a field goal later as well. Indiana led 26-24 after three quarters of play.

The next score didn’t come until there was 5:03 left to play in the game, as Stephen Carr punched in a one-yard touchdown run for the Hoosiers, making the score 33-24. The Hilltoppers would respond with another touchdown when Zappe found Malachi Corley from 19 yards out with 3:03 left to play. Indiana still led 33-31 at that point. However, once Indiana got the ball back, it was able to run the clock out and survive a scare from Western Kentucky.

Key Matchups

Bailey Zappe and Jerreth Sterns versus Michigan State’s defensive backs: I will say it again — Western Kentucky’s passing attack is dangerous. Zappe, the quarterback, and Sterns, a wide receiver, are the two main playmakers in WKU’s air raid system. Whether or not it’s the coaching staff’s philosophy or it’s just played out that way, Michigan State has certainly looked to be a “bend-don’t-break” defense so far this season, and has been susceptible to giving up chunk yardage through the air, but not a lot of points. Expect the Hilltoppers to be able to move the ball — especially with the depth in the defensive backfield even thinner now with Kalon Gervin in the transfer portal — but also expect the MSU secondary to step up in crunch time.

Kenneth Walker III/MSU offensive line versus Western Kentucky front seven: It’s probably getting a bit repetitive seeing Walker’s name in this section every week, but here are the facts: the Hilltoppers are awful at defending the run, giving up 224.7 yards per game, which ranks 120th in FBS, and 4.8 yards per carry. Meanwhile, the Spartans rank 20th in FBS in rushing offense with 215.5 yards per game, and Walker leads the country in rushing with 554 yards. Expect the MSU offensive line to dominate the trenches, and for Walker to have a big day against a lackluster WKU rushing defense.

Payton Thorne versus the Western Kentucky secondary: While the Hilltoppers struggle against the run, Western Kentucky’s passing defense is actually solid, allowing just 215 yards per game through the air, which ranks No. 62 in the country. However, keep in mind WKU played one of its three games against Army, and the Black Knights only passed six times in that game for a grand total of 77 yards, which would be skewing the statistics this early in the season. The Hilltoppers did give up 373 passing yards to the Indiana Hoosiers last week. I expect Thorne to have a bounce-back game after his less than stellar performance last week, and I expect Walker’s success in the ground game to open up the passing game for Thorne, Jayden Reed, Jalen Nailor and Tre Mosley.

Game Info

Time: 7:30 p.m. Eastern (7:40 p.m. kickoff)
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Location: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan
Weather expectations: Rain showers are expected at kickoff and throughout the game. Temperatures in the low 70s/high 60s, with winds blowing south/southwest at five-to-eight miles per hour.
Line: Michigan State -11


After Michigan State’s putrid offensive showing against Nebraska last week, particularly in the second half, I expect to see a much better showing from the unit this week against a Western Kentucky team that gives up 439.7 yards and 30.67 points per game.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan State only allow 18 points per game (33rd in FBS), while Western Kentucky averages 41 points per game (14th in FBS). MSU is giving up 396.5 yards per game, while WKU is putting up 507.3 yards and 426 passing yards per game. So, the most intriguing matchup is going to be MSU’s defense versus Western Kentucky’s offense. The Hilltoppers will also challenge the Spartans with a lot of high-tempo, no-huddle plays.

There is expected to be rain showers in this game as well, which could affect both teams’ passing offenses, but could also make things more difficult for the defensive backs guarding the wide receivers. We’ll have to see if the weather plays any sort of factor.

Overall, I expect a relatively high-scoring game that will be closer than what many fans may anticipate, but a Michigan State win when it’s all said and done.

For more on Western Kentucky, please read our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece, or check out my conversation with The Towel Rack — an independent website for all things Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. For my responses to The Towel Rack’s questions, read here.


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