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Western Kentucky Passing Game Could Pose an Issue For Michigan State Defense

“The opponent changes, but the standard remains the same.” That was the message Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker gave his players while preparing to play Youngstown State two weeks ago. His football team would end up winning by four touchdowns en route to becoming 2-0. That mantra will likely remain the same as the Spartans welcome another, somewhat weaker team, to East Lansing in the form of Western Kentucky.

However, the Hilltoppers shouldn’t be taken lightly for a variety of reasons. For one, they are coming off a hard fought loss at the hands of the Indiana. The Hoosiers, who won 33-31, are not being viewed as a force in the Big Ten this season. Although any time a Power 5 conference team squeaks by a lesser opponent, it turns some heads. Western Kentucky has the full attention of MSU, and their high octane passing game is exactly why.

Watch this weeks edition of the Michigan State Update, a weekly video series hosted by WSN MSU Football Reporter, Alex Mayer, that highlights key plays from Spartan victories and previews upcoming opponents.

Do You Know Your Enemy?

Western Kentucky may be a 1-2 football team, but their quarterback is putting up numbers that would make you think his team is undefeated. Bailey Zappe is a redshirt senior that just transferred from Houston Baptist University this past offseason. The Texas native has thrown for at least 350 yards, and completed 70% of his passes in each of his three starts this year. With another 310 yards on Saturday, he will go over 10,000 total yards on his career. The Hilltoppers signal caller also has 13 touchdowns, including seven in a Week 1 win over UT Martin. Zappe is currently top-10 in all of college football in passing scores, yards, and quarterback rating.

In 2020, Western Kentucky Quarterback Bailey Zappe threw just one interception in 215 passing attempts as a junior.
Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

The stats can go on and on, but how does he ignite Western Kentucky’s offense? Zappe has the luxury of having many weapons to throw to. In the Hilltoppers loss to Indiana, ten different receivers caught a pass. Malachi Corley led the way catching 9 balls for 70 yards. Many wideouts for this team stand above six feet tall including Daewood Davis, who has big play ability. He doesn’t catch many passes, but when he does he makes them count, averaging almost 28 yards per catch. Adam Cofield is their lead running back that is a threat to get a few check down passes out of the backfield.

Michigan State will be relieved that they won’t have to chase Bailey Zappe out of the pocket much. Especially after having to deal with D’Eriq King and Adrian Martinez in consecutive games. That is because he can find someone open more often than not, and his completion percentage (73.1%) proves that. Do not be surprised if Western Kentucky catches the Spartans secondary off guard.

What Should The Game Plan Be?

An easy adjustment for MSU would be to do whatever it takes to get their defense off the field. In the second half against Nebraska, they had to defend for 49 plays and more than 23 minutes of game time. However, the Spartans have been getting solid play from every level of their defense this season. As a result, the game plan shouldn’t waver too far from the one’s that were in place for every win thus far.

First off, Michigan State needs to force pressure on Bailey Zappe. If he gets too comfortable, he will easily march Western Kentucky down the field. Adrian Martinez was brought down seven times last weekend, but it won’t be as easy this time around. The Spartans will likely be without Drew Beesley after he went down with what Mel Tucker is calling a lower body injury. Linebacker Chase Kline announced he entered his name in the transfer portal this week as well.

However, their are some players that are riding high coming into this contest. Defensive tackle Jacob Slade recently had his best game wearing green and white. Against the Cornhuskers the junior tallied a sack and two tackles for loss. Another defensive lineman also named Jacub had an impressive showing. Jacob Panasiuk’s two sacks and two tackles for loss carried him to defensive player of the week honors by Pro Football Focus. Then there is Xavier Henderson. The bonafide leader of the defense had a whopping 17 tackles on Saturday. It’s a number so high, you don’t even have to look it up to know it was a career high for the senior. The coaching staff has recognized his outstanding play and named him a captain for the fifth game in a row.

So the recipe is simple. If Michigan State can get big games out of its key players and do what is necessary to get them off the field in a timely fashion, they should be in good shape. What makes the Spartans defense so enjoyable to watch is any player can have a big play at any moment. Even lesser known names like Chester Kimbrough and Ronald Williams Jr, have made impact plays in this young season. The key to the game is making sure Western Kentucky doesn’t find a way around that.

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