If you didn’t catch this new series earlier in the week, you get one pass with a brief explanation again here before you are out of luck moving forward. With both spring practice and the 2021 NFL Draft having come and gone, it is time for college football fans to turn our full attention to the 2021 season. With that in mind, along with vaccination efforts making it seem likely a full 12-game schedule will occur in 2021 (we hope), I am going to look ahead over the next two months and rank Michigan State’s opponents this coming season by easiest (No. 12) to most difficult (No. 1). Up today is the game I deem the second easiest: Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers come to East Lansing for MSU’s homecoming this fall.
2020 Record: 5-7 (4-3)
The Hilltoppers, led by head coach, Tyson Helton, had a rocky 2020 season in Conference USA. Western Kentucky started the campaign with a 35-21 loss at Louisville and ended it with a 39-21 loss in the Lending Tree Bowl to Georgia State. Among the other seven losses on the season included managing just 10 points against BYU in a 41-10 trip to Provo. The program’s lone win over a team with a winning record was a 13-10 home victory in October over Chattanooga (the Mocs, an FCS team, finished the 2020-2021 season at 3-2 overall, which included games in the spring). WKU’s other four wins on the season were all to teams that also finished with a losing record overall.
Series History: None
This will be the first meeting between the two football programs. The Spartans and Hilltoppers have never met previously, and MSU has only ever faced five teams from the current Conference USA membership list.
The Spartans are 6-1 all-time against Conference USA teams with the sole loss coming to Louisiana Tech in a 20-19 defeat in 2003. The Hilltoppers will mark the sixth team to make the list. Michigan State will also play Florida Atlantic, another Conference USA opponent, in 2024. MSU is 3-0 all-time against the Owls.
2021 Offensive Outlook
The man under center might still be somewhat familiar to Spartan fans if he returns from the transfer portal. Maryland graduate transfer Tyrell Pigrome left the Terps last spring and landed in Bowling Green, Kentucky to play for the Hilltoppers. He played in 11 games last season, throwing for 1,615 yards on 297 attempts. Pigrome completed 57.6 percent of his passes and averaged 5.4 yards per pass. He also rushed 325 yards and scored four touchdowns on the ground.
Pigrome is still listed on the roster at the time of publishing, but also entered the portal again in late March after the Hilltoppers brought in offensive coordinator Zach Kittley from Houston Baptist. Kittley brought along quarterback Bailey Zappe and wide receivers Jerreth Sterns, Josh Sterns, and Ben Ratzlaff via the transfer portal with him to Bowling Green. Zappe completed 141 of 215 passes in 2020 for 1,833 yards, while throwing for 15 touchdowns and just one interception. With Pigrome, Zappe, Louisville transfer Drew Zaubi, and the incoming 2021 signee Chance McDonald at the position, the roster would feature six quarterbacks should Pigrome stay.
Also returning for the Hilltoppers will be the second leading rusher from last season (not counting Pigrome), running back Jakairi Moses who had 60 rush attempts for 319 total yards along with nine catches for 38 yards.
The offense averaged 291 yards per game last season and totaled 27 touchdowns. The attack was relatively balanced with 165.3 yards through the air and 125.7 yards on the ground per game. The unit averaged 40.1 yards in penalties per game.
2021 Defensive Outlook
The defense lost its leading tackler, defensive back Devon Key, who tallied 88 tackles (51 solo and 37 assisted) last season and signed as an undrafted free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs. Also gone to the transfer portal is the third-leading tackler from last season, Kyle Bailey, who is not listed on the depth chart this spring after tallying 76 total tackles (41 total and 35 assisted) in 2020 as a linebacker. However, WKU does return defensive back Antwon Kincade for a fifth year after he was second on the team with 86 total tackles (49 solo and 37 assisted).
Overall the unit as a whole gave up 25.33 points per game, along with 177.3 yards passing (6.35 yards per pass average) and 171.4 yards rushing per game (4.2 yards per carry average).
Why No. 12?
The Hilltoppers have had just one winning season since 2017. Western Kentucky also comes into this matchup after games against Army and Indiana (with a bye week between those two opponents). While the roster has more talent than Youngstown State, this is another game that is the definition of a buy game opponent and one the Spartans will need to handle to have a shot at bowl season. Luckily, Michigan State should have no problem with this one sandwiched between a home game against Nebraska and a road trip to Rutgers.
This game should be over by halftime and provide some reps for some of the second-string players in the second half. MSU should win by a couple touchdown margin, even if the defense gets a little too relaxed in the fourth quarter and allows the Hilltoppers offense to score.