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Get to Know the Opponent: Western Kentucky

The Hilltoppers bring an explosive passing attack into East Lansing

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Western Kentucky Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan State Spartans will look to finish out a perfect non-conference schedule when the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers comes to town this Saturday for homecoming. This might seem like an easy game, but WKU is no pushover. MSU will need to focus and not look past them with a big road game lurking next weekend against Rutgers. Let’s get to know our final non-Big Ten opponent.

School: Western Kentucky University

Nickname: Hilltoppers

Conference: Conference USA (East Division)

Location: Bowling Green, Kentucky

Head Coach: Tyson Helton (third season, 15-13)

Record: 1-2

Mascot: Big Red

All-Time Series: Saturday’s game marks the first ever meeting between WKU and MSU

Western Kentucky is off to a 1-2 start, having beaten an FCS opponent in its first game before losing Army and Indiana by a combined five points. The Hilltoppers have been very close to pulling off a couple of upsets already, so Michigan State needs to be on alert. While the program isn’t where it was under Jeff Brohm a few years back, Western Kentucky has been to bowl games in each of the last two seasons.

Team Stats

The Hilltoppers have been putting up some points. They are averaging 41.7 points per game, which ranks 14th the country. That number is somewhat inflated from WKU dropping 59 on Tennessee-Martin to open the season, but the Hilltoppers are averaging 32 points per game in the last two games against Army and Indiana.

Very little of this is being done on the ground. WKU is No. 121 in the country in rushing offense at 81.33 yards per game. The team averages the second fewest running plays per game in the nation, at just 21.33 attempts per contest, and averages 3.81 yards per carry (86th).

As one might expect, this means WKU throws the ball a lot. The Hilltoppers throw 40 passes per game, and are averaging 10.7 yards per attempt, the fifth best mark in the country. As a result, they are second nationally in passing offense at 426 yards per game. The Hilltoppers have 14 touchdowns against just two interceptions.

Defensively, the Hilltoppers can be had. WKU is 104th in scoring defense, allowing 30.7 points per game.

WKU ranks 120th in rushing defense, giving up 224.67 yards per game, and ranks 104th allowing 4.81 yards per carry. The Hilltoppers have also allowed nine rushing touchdowns in three games.

The passing defense is a little bit better. The Toppers are 62nd in passing defense, allowing 215 yards per game, and are 39th in yards per pass attempt (6.3 YPA). The defense has allowed two passing touchdowns and has one interception.

It should be noted that playing Army can greatly skew those numbers in a small sample size such as this. But the fact the Hilltoppers allowed over 200 yards rushing to an FCS school is also notable.

Players to Watch

Senior quarterback Bailey Zappe is getting his first taste of starting at the FBS level after transferring in from FCS Houston Baptist, and has taken advantage of his opportunity. Zappe has thrown for 1,224 yards and is completing 73.1 percent of his passes. He has the 13 touchdowns against the two interceptions for a quarterback rating of 192.2, which is the third best in the country. Zappe also has 11 carries for 37 yards and a touchdown on the ground, so while he isn’t a dual threat, he’s not a statue either.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

We noted above the running game isn’t a big part of the Hilltoppers offense, and the individual stats show that as well. Senior running back Adam Cofield leads the team in attempts (23) and yards (82) and has two rushing touchdowns. He has also caught four passes for 21 yards.

As one might expect with the gaudy passing numbers, WKU likes to spread the ball around to its receivers. Jerreth Sterns leads the team with 23 catches for 360 yards (15.65 YPC) and four touchdowns. He also serves as the punt returner.

Fellow junior Mitchell Tinsley is second on the team in receiving yards with 219 on 14 catches with a pair of touchdowns. One notable absence is tight end Joshua Simon, who is out for the season with an injury after catching two touchdowns in the season opener.

On defense, senior defensive lineman Michael Pitts and DeAngelo Malone are the threats up front. Pitts leads the team with 3.5 tackles for loss and has a sack. Malone has 1.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss and is tied for second on the team with 23 total tackles.

Senior defensive back Antwon Kincade has a team high 26 tackles and sophomore Miguel Edwards has the lone interception.

The kicking game hasn’t gotten much work yet this year. Brayden Narveson is in his second year as placekicker for the Toppers and is 15-for-16 on field goal attempts in his career.

Senior punter John Haggerty III is averaging nearly 50 yards per punt on his four kicks this year, after averaging over 45 yards per punt each of the last two seasons.

So that’s a look at Western Kentucky. They are a high powered passing offense that has been able to rack up yards and points so far this year. Michigan State has played a defense that has allowed teams to dink and dunk, but has not given up a ton of big plays, though it has given up a few. This will be quite a test for the Spartans defensively.

The good news is that the Spartans should be able to run the ball effectively with Kenneth Walker III and company against a WKU defense that has been gashed on the ground. Controlling the time of possession and the clock will allow MSU to keep the Western Kentucky passing attack on the sideline and play the game at their pace.

This certainly won’t be a layup game for the Spartans, and MSU better be ready on Saturday night.