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5 Questions with The Towel Rack: How can Michigan State limit Western Kentucky’s air raid offense?

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

The 4-0 Michigan State Spartans host the 1-2 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers on Saturday at Spartan Stadium (7:30 p.m. Eastern on the Big Ten Network).

This is the first ever matchup between the two programs, so to help us gain some perspective on the Hilltoppers, we spoke with Jared Rosdeutscher, editor at the The Towel Rack — an independent website covering Western Kentucky athletics.

Jared provides great insights into what to expect from WKU on Saturday night. Check out our conversation below:

1. Western Kentucky throws the football a lot with the air raid offense — who are the players to know on the Hilltoppers’ offense, and what is the best way to defend this passing attack?

Jared: Bailey Zappe. This guy has been an instant star quarterback since he arrived from Houston Baptist University along with some of his wide receivers, Jerreth and Josh Sterns and Ben Ratzlaff. This offense moves fast with a lot of no huddle, so the Spartan defense better be in decent physical shape because they may not be able to substitute players as much as they want. If the Spartans can pressure Zappe with a lot of blitzes, that may be their only hope if he gets going and in a rhythm.

2. On the other side of the ball, Western Kentucky struggles to defend the run. The Michigan State rushing attack is one of the strongest in the country with Kenneth Walker III leading the charge. Why has WKU struggled against the run, and do you think there is any chance the Hilltoppers can contain Walker?

Jared: After seeing what Indiana running back Stephen Carr did to the Hilltopper defense last week, I’m absolutely terrified to think about how many yards Walker III will get this game. On paper, this defense should be a lot better than it is, but the unit’s inability to stop the run and make teams punt is the reason why Western Kentucky 1-2 and not 3-0. It’s been a bend-don’t-break style defense so far, which has been good because the Hilltoppers haven’t given up too many big plays, but still give up more yards than they should. Unless they finally have something click in practice or someone steps up in a big way, I won’t be shocked if Walker gets at least 150 yards or more on the ground.

3. Tell us about head coach Tyson Helton, his staff and his philosophies. Does the Western Kentucky fan base like what they see from Helton and the staff?

Jared: Coach Helton has been pretty good for the Tops in his time here. He vowed to bring back the air raid style, similar to when the Tops had now Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm (Helton was an assistant under him) and this season is the proof. It’s taken him a little while to get the offense he wants after going through several different quarterbacks, but Zappe is that guy. He was able to get offensive coordinator/quarterbacks Zach Kittley on his staff from Houston Baptist as well, and he was the quarterback coach for Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech, so having him continue to work with Zappe has been a major key to this offense’s success.

Usually, Coach Helton’s coaching style is a decent mix between risk and playing it safe. He’ll throw a crazy trick play out there every now and then, but at other times doesn’t go for a fourth-and-short that WKU could easily get. Most fans have liked coach Helton, but some of the calls he made against IU last game made fans a little more skeptical going into this game.

4. Last week, Western Kentucky put a scare into Indiana. What did the Hilltoppers do that was successful, and do you think the team could have the same success against Michigan State? What does WKU need to improve upon moving forward?

Jared: The Tops’ offense can score points on anyone. They can run a two-minute drive to perfection and score points in a bind. The only problem is sometimes it takes a bit for them to get going, and the defense buries them in a hole. That has happened the past two games, being down at least two touchdowns. If the Tops showed up and scored in the first quarters against Army and Indiana, this is a 3-0 team coming into East Lansing. I don’t think the offense will struggle that much against the Spartans, it’s the defense that will make the team struggle. The defense as a whole needs to improve, especially the run defense.

5. Who are the players to watch out for on Western Kentucky’s defense?

Jared: DeAngelo Malone. He’s been viewed as an NFL prospect and has the accolades to prove it. He is the most veteran player at defensive end for this team. Antwon Kincade and AJ Brathwaite are the strongest cornerbacks on the team, and had almost 30 tackles combined against Indiana.

Bonus: If you had to put a number on it, what percent chance would you give Western Kentucky to upset Michigan State and why? What is your final score prediction?

Jared: If the defense on this team was as good as the offense, I’d say a 70 percent chance, but sadly, that’s not the case. I think it’s closer to a 30 percent chance Western Kentucky leaves Spartan Stadium with its first Big Ten win. The inability to stop the run on defense, going against Kenneth Walker III, is going to make for a long night for Hilltopper fans. I still think the offense scores points but not enough to win. Give me the Spartans 45-31.

Thank you to Jared for providing his thoughts and analysis about the Hilltoppers. You can follow Jared on Twitter, and for more Western Kentucky news, follow The Towel Rack as well.

If you’re interested in reading my responses to Jared’s questions, head over to The Towel Rack.