NCAAF · Fri (12/16) @ 11:35am ET
|Legion Field Stadium, Birmingham, Alabama|
Our Pick: WKEN Western Kentucky at Over 37.5 (+105). Sign up at FanDuel for a $1,000 risk-free bet!
The home team by land, the visitors by air.
That’s the paradox of this game, as Western Kentucky features one of the game’s fantastic aerial displays and Michigan State chews up yards on the ground, courtesy of college football’s leading rusher.
Kenneth Walker III left Wake Forest and found heaven in East Lansing. He’ll key long, sustained drives, and the natural grass of Spartan Stadium will also be instrumental in keeping these points under the total.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (1-2)
This is Western’s lone game all season on real grass, and nobody will be able to fault certain East Lansing greenskeepers for allowing the blades inside Spartan Stadium to grow out in recent weeks.
The Hilltoppers have a dynamic offense, and we’ll get to those particulars. But on the real stuff at BYU a year ago, WKU lost, 41-10. Against Louisville in Nashville in 2019, it lost 34-15. At Florida Atlantic in ’18, it lost 34-15. At Alabama in ’16, it lost 38-10.
The Spartans might require every little edge to control Bailey Zappe (6-2, 215), a Texan and Houston Baptist transfer who has been outstanding in his fifth-year-senior season.
WKU averages 400 passing yards per game, topped only by Virginia’s 461 in the nation. Zappe, pronounced ZAP-ee, is eighth nationally in completion percentage (73.1), sixth in yards per attempt (10.3), tied for sixth in TDs (13) and fourth with a QB Rating of 192.2.
Only two of his 119 passes have been picked off by defenders.
WKU passes more than 69% of the time, second to Mississippi State’s 75.3%. There is no secret about what Hilltoppers’ third-year coach Tyson Helton is attempting with his Air Raid offense.
Jerreth Sterns (5-8, 180) is one of three receivers who left Houston Baptist, with Zappe, to create mayhem on offense in Bowling Green, Ky. Sterns has caught 23 passes for 360 yards (a 15.7-yard average) and four TDs.
Mitchell Tinsley (15.6 average, 2 TDs), Malachi Corley (9.2, 2 TDs), Oregon transfer Daewood Davis (No. 2 nationally at 27.3 yards per catch) and Craig Burt Jr. (No. 3 at 26.4) round out Zappe’s quintet of lethal weapons.
Michigan State will have to get to Zappe. Sparty averages 4.3 sacks, tied for fourth with Pittsburgh. It has allowed a scant 19.3 points, top-30 in the country, and owns a points-per-play figure of 0.221, 12th-lowest in the game.
And Sparty will also rely on those tall blades of grass to slow Zappe & Co.
Western Kentucky At Michigan State Full Sportsbook Odds
Michigan State Spartans (4-0)
The recipe here for a Spartans victory, and a sweet Under for us, is giving the ball early and often to Mr. Walker, who leads FBS with 554 rushing yards. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior has a 7.3-yard average and has scored five times.
At Wake last season, he was third in the nation in rushing yards in Week 11. But he wanted more, a fresh start, and he found it in East Lansing, where offensive line coach Chris Kapolivic calls him “an eraser.”
As solid as he is at running with the pigskin, Walker, according to Kapolivic, has a superb knack for finding the errant defender who has broken through the MSU offensive line.
“If an offensive lineman misses a block, [Walker] will be able to erase that defender,” says Kapolivic, “and correct the lineman’s mistake.”
Third-year sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne says Walker’s mindset and work ethic have been contagious. Around Vegas in the summer, MSU’s victory total this season was set at 4½; one more and that cashes, at about a -130 price.
Walker owes his improvement to strength and conditioning coach Jason Novak and performance dietician Amber Rinestine. A real surprise, he says. “I feel like I was already as fast and as strong as I could be, but when I got here I got even stronger.”
MSU averages 0.505 points per play, 27th in the game. Walker is a reason, but Thorne has thrown for 10 TDs and had only one picked off. Sparty takes care of the ball, and its defense has been stout, so far, yielding only 19.3 points a game.
Sports Betting Recommendation
Both of our go-to models favor the Under wager, with MSU winning 34-17 and 32-26. We are banking on groundskeepers letting the grass grow, to slow the Toppers’ attack, and are buoyed by weather reports that predict a 50-percent-plus chance of rain Saturday night in East Lansing.