Spartan offense dominates in 48-31 victory over Western Kentucky


MSU head coach Mel Tucker leads his team out of the tunnel before the Spartans take on Nebraska on Sept. 25, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Aidan Champion, Football Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING — Michigan State showed up and did what was expected of it on Saturday night. The Spartans soundly handled Western Kentucky in a 48-31 victory that was fueled by an all-around dominant offensive display.

MSU’s defense was immediately strong, forcing a three-and-out right out of the gate. Before the Hilltoppers even had the opportunity to respond with their own defense, Spartan Jayden Reed took the punt all the way to the house for an 88-yard touchdown. It was the second week in a row that Reed scored on a punt return.

Reed recorded 127 receiving yards and 285 all-purpose yards.

“What you see is what you get,” MSU coach Mel Tucker said. “He [Reed] does it in practice. He practices at a high level, and he’s a very explosive player.”

He added, “He’s a difference maker for us.”

The Spartans kept up the momentum, holding Western Kentucky to another three-and-out on the next drive.

Quarterback Payton Thorne and the MSU offense finally took the field and was ready to go from the start. On the fifth play of the drive, Thorne found Reed for a 46-yard reception. Three plays later, running back Kenneth Walker III entered the end zone for a 5-yard TD rush.

MSU running back Kenneth Walker dashes in the clear against Northwestern on Sept. 3/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Wide receiver Jalen Nailor had 32 yards on three receptions on the drive.

Western Kentucky responded with an 11-play, 56-yard drive on its trip to the red zone. Defensive end Maverick Hansen put an end to the march with a sack for a loss of nine yards on third down. The Hilltoppers would then get their first points on the board with a 37-yard field goal. 

MSU came back with a 27-yard reception by wide receiver Tre Mosley. Thorne continued to pad his passing performance, as he found Reed for his second TD on the night after a 46-yard completion.

Thorne finished the game with 327 passing yards.

Western Kentucky refused to go away, though. Hilltopper QB Bailey Zappe has been torching opposing defenses this season, and he came out and did so once again against the Spartans. 

Zappe threw for 488 passing yards and three touchdowns on Saturday night.

On the Hilltoppers’ retaliating drive, the QB found Western Kentucky wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley for a 60-yard reception. Shortly after, Zappe connected with tight end Joey Beljan for a 4-yard TD pass. 

The Hilltoppers pulled to within 11.

MSU’s offense was halted for the first time in this game, as Western Kentucky held it to a three-and-out.

Zappe continued to lead the Hilltoppers, converting on a 23-yard pass to Malachi Corley on second down and 21. 

Western Kentucky proceeded to advance down the field at the start of the second quarter, but was ultimately held to just a field goal.

Thorne made a point to not let his passing show get overshadowed by Zappe. He found wide receiver Jalen Nailor for a 43-yard completion just two plays into the Spartans’ responding drive. Not long after, it was Walker’s turn to score again, as the star running back hurdled over a low tackle attempt and found the pylon for a 5-yard rush.

MSU led 28-13.

Zappe kept poking at the Spartan defense, completing pass after pass until Western Kentucky was forced to settle for another field goal.

Walker came out on the next MSU possession picking up right where he left off. He would enter the end zone once again for his third TD of the night. The three-yard rush capped off a 41-yard rushing total on the drive for the running back.

MSU running back Kenneth Walker/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

The MSU defense eventually fed off of the offense’s momentum when Spartan linebacker Cal Haladay forced and recovered a Western Kentucky fumble.

This set up MSU’s offense on the Western Kentucky 31-yard line. The Spartan drive resulted in a 12-yard rushing TD up the middle for Thorne.

MSU led 42-16 at the half.

The second half wasn’t nearly as eventful for the Spartans, and Western Kentucky even gave MSU a minor scare as it began to slowly creep back into the game.

The Spartan defense delivered early, as it kept the Hilltoppers from nearly scoring on a fourth and 20 pass that was completed just short of the goal line. The play concluded a 17-play Western Kentucky drive.

MSU’s offense came out aggressive on the ground to start its next drive. Walker ran for four-straight gains, which were followed by a 13-yard pass from Thorne to Nailor. The success in the air continued when Thorne yet again found Reed for what was a 25-yard reception that downed the Spartans at the Western Kentucky 7-yard line.

The Hilltoppers stood their ground, though, limiting the Spartans to just a field goal to end the 14-yard drive.

The Spartans had a 45-16 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.

Zappe carried a long Western Kentucky march into the final quarter, completing the drive with a 28-yard TD pass to Jerreth Sterns. 

Sterns finished the contest with 186 receiving yards on 17 receptions.

The Hilltoppers then scored again on their next possession, as Beljan scored his second TD of the night on a 1-yard reception. 

The margin was condensed to just a two-possession MSU lead. 

Nailor would then be called on to put the finishing touches on the contest. On MSU’s next drive, Thorne connected with Nailor for a 21-yard reception and then a 17-yard third-down conversion. 

MSU wide receiver Jalen Nailor practices his release during fall practice/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Nailor had the most receptions (8) for the Spartan offense on Saturday and was targeted much more than in games prior.

“It was just what the game plan was; we were just sticking to the game plan,” Nailor said. “He [Thorne] was just finding me a little bit more today. I’m just thankful for the opportunities that he was giving me and credit to the O-line and the offense as a whole.”

MSU eventually settled on a field goal to complete the drive, but it was enough to put the nail in the coffin.

The Spartans improved to 5-0 and will look to continue their streak next week when they travel to SHI stadium for their meeting with conference opponent Rutgers. The game is set for a noon kickoff.