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Hilltoppers Won’t Be Shying Away from Competition at #16/17 Michigan State

WKU falls to Indiana 33-31
WKU falls to Indiana 33-31(Brett Alper)
Published: Oct. 1, 2021 at 5:53 PM CDT
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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) - WKU Football faces its third-consecutive big test on Saturday, October 2, as the Hilltoppers square off against No. 16/17 Michigan State in Spartan Stadium. Kickoff will be at 6:40 p.m. CT and the game will be broadcasted nationally on Big Ten Network.

On the offensive side of the ball, the undefeated Spartans boast the top running back in the country in Kenneth Walker III. The junior transfer from Wake Forest leads FBS with 138.5 rush yards per game and averages 7.3 yards per carry. He started out his season with an incredible performance of 264 yards and four touchdowns at Northwestern.

“The running back is a special player,” defensive coordinator Maurice Crum said. “He is so talented with his ability and he’s hard to tackle. He’s a strong runner with great burst, great speed and exceptional vision, and he runs behind an offensive line that works well together. It’s kind of like a perfect cake – they put it all together, baked it and it’s coming out just right.”

But it’s not just the rushing attack that Michigan State has going for it, but a well-balanced attack that has helped the team boast a 4-0 record. Quarterback Payton Thorne has completed 62% of his passes with a 10-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio through four games; his 169.4 passing efficiency rating ranks 17th in the nation.

It’s certainly a challenge, but that’s our job and that’s what we’re tasked with,” Crum continued. “I think they do a good job with balance and that’s why they’re a really good football team and why they are where they are. They’re a really good offense and they operate really well.”

Senior linebacker Demetrius Cain summed it all up: “I kind of see what I saw in Indiana: Big offensive linemen but with an even better running back. The quarterback is a warrior, I’ve seen him do it all. Talented receivers and good tight ends. But we’re ready for the challenge.

To complete that challenge, one of the biggest improvements the WKU defense needs to make is on third down. Through three games, the Hilltoppers’ opponents have converted 30-of-50 (60%) of the time, which is next-to-last in FBS.

Defensive tackle Jeremy Darvin said that was the main focus Crum emphasized that all week in practice.

“Getting off the field on third downs is huge,” the sixth-year senior said. “I think we did a great job getting to third down, but we didn’t do a good job of capitalizing, and that’s what we need to do if we want to be a great team. We have to be a little more focused and a little more amped up.”

On the other side of the ball, a key matchup will be between a Spartans’ defensive line which ranks eighth in FBS with 15 sacks against a WKU offensive line that has allowed only two traditional sacks through three games.

“They go hard,” center Rusty Staats said. “Their motors on defense – their defensive line – they’re coming every single play. They’re not giving up on any plays, they’re bringing it all four downs they’re on the field ... We’re just gonna prepare like we do every week: Lock into the film room and then just try to go out there and perform.”

Quarterback Bailey Zappe echoed his confidence in the offensive line in front of him.

“Those guys have been playing their butts off; to play against guys like Army and Indiana and only give up a few sacks,” the graduate transfer senior said. “Going to Michigan State it’s going to be a great challenge for them, but I know they’re ready for it. I know they’re excited to go against that type of competition.”

A capacity crowd of 74,866 in Spartan Stadium for Michigan State’s annual Homecoming game would be the 14th-highest crowd a WKU Football team has ever played in front of. But playing on the biggest stage doesn’t put the Hilltoppers into a panic  – it motivates them.

Junior Mason Brooks, one of the team’s most vocal leaders who has started 15 consecutive games at right tackle, spoke about just that.

“You’re talking about a homecoming game against a team who’s undefeated, but I don’t think there’s any fear or starstruck on this team,” he explained. “Everyone’s really bought in and you can feel it, it’s palpable. There’s a challenge ahead and the team’s excited and hungry. Obviously last week left a bitter taste and I don’t think anyone’s shying away at all from the competition at hand.”

Cain, who has pretty much seen it all in his five-plus seasons at WKU, isn’t afraid of the spotlight – he’s looking forward to the opportunity.

“This win would be huge for us,” he said. “We’re hungry and we’re looking for a win to put us on top to show people that we’re really, actually capable of winning this conference. Going to Michigan State and winning there would be a huge one for the Hilltoppers.”

Zappe, who transferred from FCS program Houston Baptist in the offseason, is relishing the moment as well.

“This is why I came here, exactly,” he said. “I love competition and playing against teams like Army, Indiana, Michigan State is what you dream of. I wouldn’t say it’s pressure, I’d say it’s more anxiousness. I’m ready to get out there, like hurry up let’s get to Saturday.”

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