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Michigan State Football: 3 Takeaways from the victory over Western Kentucky

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The Spartans continue to roll, beating the Hilltoppers 48-31.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 WKU at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Michigan State Spartans are on fire. For the first time since 2015, the Spartans are 5-0 to start the season, following a 48-31 victory over the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers on homecoming weekend. Now just five weeks into Mel Tucker’s second season at the helm, Michigan State is already just one win away from bowl eligibility.

Quarterback Payton Thorne threw for 327 yards and a touchdown, along with a rushing touchdown. Running back Kenneth Walker III took a step forward after the previous week’s struggles against Nebraska, totaling 126 yards on 24 carries and scoring three touchdowns. Walker leads the FBS in total rushing yards through the first five weeks of the season with 680 yards, and also leads the nation in average yards per game at 136. Along with that, wide receiver Jayden Reed became the first Spartan since 1972 to return two punts for touchdowns in a single season and continues to show out in the passing game. He leads the FBS in all purpose yards with 883 yards and all purpose yards per game with an average of 176.6 per contest.

There is a lot to unpack with the Spartans after Saturday night’s victory over the Hilltoppers. Let’s look at some takeaways.

Michigan State’s Defense Continues to Improve (in terms of keeping teams out of the end zone)

The defense continues to improve each week for the Spartans. This week, Michigan State made quite a few plays on defense, holding the top passing offense in the country to 31 points, which ties for the lowest the Hilltoppers scored this season. The Spartans gave up quite a bit of yardage to the Hilltoppers, notably 488 yards through the air, but held the Hilltoppers to just 16 points in the first half after a few deep drives were held to just field goals. While the secondary needs to tighten up moving forward, Tucker and company knew WKU would throw for a lot of yards in this game, and Tucker spoke about the importance of the defense being able to hold the Hilltoppers to field goal oftentimes when they reached the red zone. Simply put, the defense stepped up when needed against a potent offense. Moving forward, especially late in the season against teams like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, the Spartans are going to have to play their best games defensively.

Payton Thorne Bounced Back

Quarterback Payton Thorne looked a bit off during the Spartans’ victory over Nebraska in Week Four, failing to move the ball in the second half. On a deep ball to Jalen Nailor, Thorne underthrew the pass and the ball was picked off by a Nebraska defender. It was very strange and not at all what a throw from Thorne normally looks like this season. After that, Thorne seemed a bit rattled. His feet weren’t always set, he missed some easy throws and he held onto the ball a little too long on a few occasions. This past Saturday against Western Kentucky, none of that was the case and Thorne looked back to normal.

Thorne threw for over 300 yards for the first time this season, and made some great throws to go with it. He also added some nice plays on the ground, including a 12-yard touchdown run. Against Western Kentucky, he looked like the quarterback the Spartans need him to be, and the one we’ve seen in the first three weeks of the season. As Michigan State resumes Big Ten play against Rutgers in Week Six, Thorne’s play will become a major factor if MSU wants to continue its winning streak.

Spartans Can’t Let Up

Michigan State scored its highest point total of the season this week against Western Kentucky, with 42 of the team’s 48 points coming in the first half. This was the first time the Spartans have scored 40 points in the first half of a game since Sept. 27, 2014 against Wyoming. It was an impressive showing offensively and is a sign that the Spartans could really make some noise as they resume Big Ten play in the coming weeks.

But, MSU can’t let up. The Big Ten East has shown itself to be a loaded division again this year, and while the bottom teams may not have a pretty record, they’re more than capable of hanging around with teams at the top. Rutgers shut out Michigan in the second half of the matchup in Week Four, but the Scarlet Knights’ offense couldn’t come through in the end, and ended up falling 20-13 to the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.

The Spartans can’t overlook anybody left on their schedule, and if MSU really wants to be contending for the division title in November, each week is as important as the next. That all starts in Piscataway, New Jersey against Rutgers on Saturday. The offense needs to come out swinging, and the defense needs to back up the offense. We’ll see if the Spartans are up for it.

Michigan State’s matchup with Rutgers is set for noon Eastern Time and will be televised on Big Ten Network.