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MSU's goal: Don't get burned by Arizona State's N'Keal Harry

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Arizona State receiver N'Keal Harry

Traveling a couple of time zones away and playing a night game will be a challenge.

So will doing it in temperatures that are expected to hover around 100 degrees at kickoff.

But as No. 15 Michigan State takes the field at Sun Devil Stadium Saturday night to take on Arizona State, those two obstacles will likely not be nearly as daunting as facing wide receiver N’Keal Harry.

At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds with top-end speed, the junior has been tormenting defenses since making his debut two years ago. He did so again in Arizona State’s season-opening win over UTSA, catching six passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns.

Those numbers were impressive, but not nearly as impressive as his two touchdown catches. The first went for 58 yards when Harry broke a tackle and outran the UTSA defense to the end zone. The second was another short pass but included at least one broken tackle, lots of moves and racing across the field to finish with a 31-yard score for the Sun Devils.

“He's a talented player,” Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said. “I saw that when he was in high school when I had him in the Under Armour game. He's different and you can tell he’s going to have the opportunity to extend his career beyond college. I think he’s working at it. He understands the importance of it and I think he wants to play on the next level and he will.”

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His future in the NFL isn’t the immediate concern for the Spartans. Limiting him on Saturday night will.

Defensive backs coach Paul Haynes said to expect Michigan State to mix up its coverages against Harry, who was first-team All-Pac-12 last season after catching 82 passes for 1,142 yards and eight touchdowns. But the best bet is junior cornerback Justin Layne spending plenty of time focusing on Harry.

It’s a challenge Layne is up to.

Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne

“He's a good receiver, but I’m a good cornerback at the same time,” Layne said. “So, I’ve got to keep doing what I do. He's good at catching the ball and good at making players miss.”

Getting Harry to the ground when he does make a catch will be critical, and keeping him from breaking the big play is imperative. The Spartans put plenty of focus on avoiding giving up the big play. While they allowed 319 passing yards in the season-opening win over Utah State, they didn’t let the receivers get behind the coverage.

That will once again be a primary goal on Saturday.

“We were worried going into that game (last week),” Haynes said. “Everything is hindsight after the game, but you thought that they would throw it deep more times, so we gave up some underneath stuff. But our guys did play well on what we stressed for them to do with the deep balls in making sure we don’t give up a bunch explosive plays.”

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As important as Harry is to the Sun Devils’ offense, he has the benefit of playing with fifth-year senior quarterback Manny Wilkins, who is in his third year as the starter. Wilkins is 164 passing yards shy of 6,000 for his career and needs to score only two more touchdowns to reach 50.

Add in 12 career rushing touchdowns and Wilkins presents his own set of problems.

“He is an established quarterback,” Edwards said. “He has a lot of experience. A bad series of plays doesn’t affect him going into the next series. He doesn’t feel like he has to do something now. He understands that this offense will give him an opportunity.”

But none of that changes the fact limiting Harry will be the No. 1 priority. The Spartans will use plenty of bodies in the secondary after limiting the substitutions last week against the fast pace of Utah State. Expect sophomore Tre Person and redshirt freshman Shakur Brown to get some snaps at corner while freshman Xavier Henderson will see some time at safety.

More often, however, the matchup of Layne on Harry will be the one to watch.

“I embrace this just like I embrace every game,” Layne said. “I just gotta come in there with the same mindset. I don’t want anybody to catch a ball on me, and I don’t wanna give up explosive plays or touchdowns. I treat it the same, like I treat it every week.”

Michigan State at Arizona State

Kickoff: 10:45 p.m. Saturday, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760

Records: Both teams 1-0

Line: Michigan State by 5