Hilltoppers unable to stop Spartan offense in loss to No. 17 Michigan State


Steve Roberts/WKU Athletics

WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) went 46-of-64 for 488 yards and three touchdowns but the Hilltoppers fell to No. 17 Michigan State 48-31 on Oct. 2, 2021 in East Lansing, Michigan.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU (1-3) traveled north to East Lansing, Michigan to play the No. 17 Michigan State Spartans (5-0, 2-0 B1G) Saturday night for the first-ever matchup between the programs. The Hilltoppers fell to the Spartans 48-31. 

“Tough game. Big environment. That’s a really good football team that we just played in Michigan State,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “I thought they did a really good job. They made a lot of explosive plays. We did a lot of good things offensively but couldn’t find the endzone though in the first half. That was an obvious thing. Defensively, we couldn’t stop them in the first half. We held them to six [points] in the second half. So, two different stories.” 

Both teams combined for 1,075 yards of offense. WKU graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe aired it out, throwing for 488 yards with three touchdowns while completing 72% of his passes. It was the third-most passing yards surrendered by the Spartans since 2000.

Michigan State redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne completed 67% of his passes for 327 yards and one score. 

The Hilltoppers’ junior wide receiver Jerreth Sterns caught 17 passes, tying WKU’s single game record, for 186 yards and one score. 

MSU junior running back Kenneth Walker III rushed for 126 yards on 5.3 yards per carry with three touchdowns, all scores coming in the first half. 

“It wasn’t very good, obviously, because he had a great night,” Helton said. “They moved the line of scrimmage. He’s an exceptional running back. He’s hard to tackle. He proved it on film before we ever showed up here and he showed it again tonight that it doesn’t matter, he’s going to find a way to make you miss and he’s going to have explosive plays.” 

The Spartans’ redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed finished the game with 278 all-purpose yards, 127 yards receiving and 151 yards returning. He scored one touchdown through the air and one on a punt return.  

WKU redshirt sophomore kicker Brayden Narveson went 3-for-3 on his field goals attempts. Narveson has now made his last 12 kicks. Michigan State graduate kicker Matt Coghlin went 2-for-2 on his field goals for the game. 

“They’re the No. 17 team in the nation for a reason,” Zappe said after the game. “They’ve got a heck of a defense, we were able to move the football down the field every single drive we’ve just got to score when we get into the redzone.”


WKU won the toss and elected to receive for the first time this season. 

WKU’s first drive of the game ended with a three-and-out. WKU redshirt senior punter John Haggerty III boomed a 61-yard punt but Reed returned the kick 88 yards to the house, giving the Spartans a 7-0 lead with 13:32 left in the first quarter.

The Spartan offense trotted onto the field for the first time after another WKU three-and-out. Walker, the nation’s leading rusher, ran for six yards on the Spartans’ first play. 

Michigan State redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne connected with Reed a few plays later on a huge 46-yard pitch-and-catch. The Spartans moved into the red zone after a Thorne 19-yard completion. Walker punched in a five-yard touchdown to put Michigan State up 14-0 with 8:26 left in the first quarter. 

The Hilltopper offense moved the ball on its third drive, getting inside Spartan territory with a 24-yard reception by Sterns. Zappe completed a 10-yard and 21-yard pass to get inside the Michigan State 10-yard line. The Spartan defense toughened up, holding the Hilltoppers to a 37-yard field goal by Narveson with 5:04 left in the first quarter. 

Michigan State answered quickly on its next drive with a 27-yard pitch-and-catch between Thorne and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tre Mosley before Thorne connected with a wide-open Reed for a 46-yard touchdown, putting the Spartans up 21-3 with 3:54 left in the first quarter. 

“You look back at the first two series and we go three-and-out,” Zappe said. “That’s not helping our defense at all. We gotta start fast, we haven’t started fast at all these last four games.”

WKU responded with a 60-yard completion from Zappe to junior wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley. The Hilltoppers scored two plays later with a four-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore tight end Joey Beljan, cutting the lead to 21-10 with 2:57 left in the first quarter. 

WKU forced Michigan State into its first three-and-out of the game. The Hilltoppers used the momentum to march into Michigan State territory before the first quarter ended. 

Both teams combined for 361 yards of offense in the first quarter of play alone.


WKU moved the ball with ease into the red zone before the Michigan State defense forced a 29-yard field goal attempt from Narveson, making the score 21-13.

The Spartans got back on track with a 43-yard completion from Thorne to redshirt junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor. Walker finished the Spartan drive off with three runs, scoring on a five-yard touchdown and hurdling WKU defensive back Beanie Bishop to put the Spartans up 28-13 with 9:10 left in the first half.

The Hilltoppers continued to move the ball with ease through the air with 11, 34, and 13-yard throws from Zappe to get the ball inside the red zone. The Spartan defense held strong inside the redzone once more, forcing WKU to kick its third field goal of the first half. Narveson cut the Michigan State lead to 28-16 with 6:51 left in the first half.   

Michigan State answered back with a 20-yard reception by Mosley before moving the ball down the field with ease on the ground. Walker scored his third touchdown of the first half with a three-yard touchdown run, putting the Spartans up 35-16 with 2:39 left in the first half. 

WKU’s ensuing drive ended in disaster with a Zappe fumble on a quarterback sneak, giving the ball back to Michigan State on the WKU 31 with 1:34 left in the first half. The Spartans converted on the turnover in six plays with a 12-yard touchdown run from Thorne, extending their lead to 42-16.

The Hilltoppers attempted to get a quick score before half, but time ran out before they could get into field goal range. 

“We were kicking field goals, and so we were not able to keep pace with their touchdowns,” Helton said. “Then defensively, they just had us totally off balance. They’re hitting the deep shots and they’re running the football a lot. They’re moving the line of scrimmage. So, they really were able to do whatever they wanted. It kind of put our defense on their heels. They were just trying to find stability.”


Helton elected for an onside kick to start the second half but the ball rolled into the hands of MSU redshirt freshman tight end Maliq Carr. Thorne scrambled to convert a third-and-11 but a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty a few plays later derailed the possession, forcing a punt. 

WKU slowly but surely moved down the field into Michigan State territory before Zappe scrambled to convert a fourth-and-one. After a third-and-one conversion that put the ball inside the Spartan 10-yard line, penalties push the Hilltoppers back. 

Helton elected to go for a fourth-and-goal on the Michigan State 20-yard line. Zappe threw to a wide open Jerreth Sterns, but Sterns tripped and fell one yard short of the endzone. 

Michigan State drove the ball 96 yards on 14 plays on its next possession. The Spartans extended their lead 45-16 with 43 seconds left in the third quarter on a 21-yard field goal by Coghlin after the Hilltopper defense held its own inside its 10-yard line. 

The third quarter ended with Michigan State redshirt senior defensive end Jacob Panasiuk’s second sack of the game on Zappe. 


The Hilltoppers began the fourth quarter by converting a fourth-and-four on a Zappe seven-yard completion. Zappe connected with Sterns on a 23-yard completion a few plays later before throwing a 28-yard touchdown to Sterns with 13:13 left in the game. Zappe converted the two-point conversion with a rocket of a pass to Tinsley, cutting the Michigan State lead to 45-24. 

“My honest opinion, [Sterns] is the best receiver in the nation,” Zappe said. “He showed that today, he showed that the last three games. He’s a heck of a player and he deserves it.”

WKU’s defense stepped up on the next possession, stopping Michigan State’s run game on a third-and-two and fourth-and-two to give the offense a short field. 

The Hilltoppers pushed the ball down the field with the help of three penalties, two coming on third down, before Zappe tossed a jump ball to Beljan for a one-yard touchdown. The score stood at 45-31 with 8:24 left in the game. 

The Spartans put the game on ice with their next drive. The Michigan State offense got going after an unnecessary roughness call on WKU redshirt senior cornerback Omari Alexander. Michigan State converted a third-and-six on a 17-yard reception by Nailor before extending its lead to 48-31 on a 20-yard field goal by Coghlin with 4:46 left in the game. 

WKU’s last-ditch effort to put more points on the board fell short after the offense failed to convert a final fourth down. Michigan State punted before WKU ran the clock out to finish the game.

Up next, WKU will host the 5-0 University of Texas at San Antonio Roadrunners at Houchens-Smith Stadium for its first Conference USA game of the 2021 season. The Roadrunners defeated UNLV 24-17 on Saturday and earned four votes in this week’s AP Top 25 Poll.

“Our number goal now is to try to go get conference play and be in a run to try to compete for a conference championship,” Helton said. “That’s our number one goal. I won’t lose any sleep tonight and we’ll go to bed and we’ll sleep good and get up in the morning and get my jaw right and be ready to go to work for UTSA.” 

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.