'We had something to prove': Michigan State's offense outpaces Western Kentucky
East Lansing — There might not be a team out there that plays with a chip on its shoulder quite like Michigan State.
So, when the Spartans offense failed to convert a first down in the second half last week in a victory over Nebraska, there was a different edge on Saturday night when Western Kentucky rolled into Spartan Stadium.
There was plenty of talk about the Hilltoppers’ offense, and rightly so. Behind Bailey Zappe, one of the top passers in the nation, they came to town gaining more than 500 yards a game while throwing for more than 400.
So, yeah, the Michigan State offense wanted to show what happened a week ago was the exception and not the rule.
It didn’t take long for that to play out as No. 17 Michigan State piled on 42 first-half points before outlasting Western Kentucky for a 48-31 victory in front of a homecoming crowd of 70,075.
“Coming out this week I felt like we had something to prove,” quarterback Payton Thorne said. “After last week we didn’t think we played well and I didn’t think I played very well. We played really well in the first half, we were executing, the offensive line was doing their job and they were playing physical football.
“We wish we played better in the second half. I thought we were moving the ball but we’ve got to finish in the red zone better. So, we’re not satisfied with that and that will be something we can learn from this game.”
Fortunately for the Spartans (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten), the lack of firepower in the second half mattered little as Kenneth Walker III scored three first-half touchdowns, Jayden Reed returned a punt for a touchdown for the second straight game, and Michigan State was on cruise control for most of the final two quarters.
Western Kentucky tried to mount a rally late, pulling within two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late.
“We wanted to come out and start fast and play complementary football, and we were able to do that against what was a very good football team,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. “I'm really proud of this football team. The way they worked this past week, we worked with a purpose.”
That purpose was clear — get the offense rolling and get it rolling quickly. It was imperative against an offense like Western Kentucky’s that likely wouldn’t be held in check all night.
Reed got it going, taking the first punt of the game back 88 yards to give Michigan State a lead before it ever ran an offensive play. From there, Walker scored on a 5-yard run, Reed caught a 46-yard touchdown pass from Thorne with Walker adding two more touchdown runs to give Michigan State a 35-16 lead in the second quarter.
When Cal Haladay forced a Zappe fumble late in the first half, the Spartans took advantage with Thorne’s 12-yard touchdown run, taking a 42-16 lead into the locker room.
“We’ve got to limit those explosive plays,” Western Kentucky coach Tyson Helton said. “In the first half, they were able to do whatever they wanted to do, whether it was running, throwing or whatever it was. We regrouped in the second half and were able to put a good plan together, so we’ve got to find a way to start fast next week.”
It surely didn’t happen this week as the Hilltoppers (1-3) were getting field goals to Michigan State’s touchdowns. They had three field goals in the first half and only one touchdown, a critical swing in the game.
“Obviously kicking field goals against a team like Michigan State is not going to win the game,” Helton said.
Michigan State extended its lead to 45-16 early in the fourth quarter on a Matt Coghlin field goal, but Western Kentucky took advantage of a rash of Michigan State penalties and a failed fourth-down attempt to add a couple of touchdowns, pull within 14, and make things interesting.
But Michigan State responded with a 72-yard drive to put the game away, capping the drive with a Coghlin field goal from 20 yards out to push the lead back to 17 with 4:46 to play.
Zappe did his best to keep the Hilltoppers in the game, going 46-for-64 passing for 488 yards and three touchdowns. After a first-half touchdown pass to tight end Joey Beljan, Zappe heated up in the fourth quarter. He hit Jerreth Sterns — he had 17 receptions for 186 yards — with a 28-yard touchdown pass to pull the Hilltoppers within 45-24 after a two-point conversion, then found Beljan with a 1-yard strike with 8:24 left in the game to make it 45-31.
But that was it as Coghlin’s final field goal essentially put the game away.
“We knew we were going to have to finish,” Walker said. “That’s what we talked about every day, about starting fast and finishing strong. I feel like that's what we did tonight.”
While Western Kentucky gained 560 yards and threw for 488, Michigan State was up to the task, gaining 519 total yards with much more balance. Walker ran for 126 yards to go along with his three scores while Reed had four receptions for 127 yards. Jalen Nailor had eight catches for 128 yards while Thorne was 20-for-30 passing for 327 yards.
Now Michigan State gets set to head out of town, traveling to Rutgers next week before a trip to Indiana. After that it’s a bye week before hosting Michigan.
“We're 5-0 and that's a good start, but the most important thing is what we do next,” Tucker said. “We’ll get back at it and take the show on road. We all know that the Big Ten is a tough conference, so we’ll continue to work to get better.”