Michigan State football: Kenneth Walker III is proving he can carry Spartans' offense
He almost had the game-winning TD in overtime against Nebraska, but instead Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III put the Spartans right on the doorstep of the goal-line, setting up a deal-sealing 21-yard field goal by Matt Coghlin.
The Spartans weren’t at optimal levels Saturday against the Huskers, but they still won 23-20. Walker’s powerful dash up the middle and refusal to fall on the first hit was one of those plays that end up forgotten, considering how he’s blazed fields with reckless abandon this season.
It wasn’t a huge chunk-yardage play, but it was one of the most important plays of the night for MSU. Whether a 75-yard TD run on the first play of the game — like against Northwestern in Week 1 — or handfuls of 4- and 5- yard gains, he’s proven to be an invaluable asset to the Michigan State offense, which ranks No. 34 nationally among FBS programs.
Wearing down defenses is Walker’s calling card. At 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, the junior has a physical, yet nimble, style of traversing the field. He can be elegant and smooth, or he can be brutally destructive and power his way through piles of defenders, all the while breaking a first wave of tacklers.
That’s what he does: wears down defenses with quick jabs, with body shots, setting up KO-inducing uppercuts to the jaw. Watching him run has become a thing of beauty. Even non-MSU fans appreciate his style — he’s been that good.
Stats aren’t everything
Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t always tell the entire truth, either.
Though shut down by Nebraska, Walker still had meaningful carries. His line of 19 totes for 61 yards doesn’t really highlight his importance to the Spartans’ offense this past Saturday night in East Lansing. Without him, the game-winning field goal may have not happened.
However, he does have some gaudy numbers that deserve recognition: 23 carries for 264 yards and 4 TDs vs. Northwestern; 27 carries for 172 yards and a receiving TD vs. Miami (FL).
He’s averaging 7.3 yards per carry and has reached the end zone 5 times this season, nearly one-third of the Spartans’ 18 total touchdowns.
His presence, alone, makes teams adjust — which, in turn, opens up possibilities for others on Michigan State’s offense.
What Walker means to MSU
“An embarrassment of riches” is the best way to describe the quality of playmakers that the Spartans have had in their backfield during the past 20 years or so — the likes of Javon Ringer, Sedrick Irvin, Jeremy Langford, Duane Gouldborne, along with others such as LJ Scott, Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell and Jehuu Caulcrick.
All stars. All in the record books.
Establishing a fine-tuned running game has always been an objective at Michigan State, regardless of coach. Good, bad or indifferent, just about every team has had at least 1 or 2 impactful ball-carriers come through at just the right time. Some took a year or two to develop, while some, such as Scott, found nearly immediate success.
Walker rushed for 579 yards as a true freshman at Wake Forest and then again repeated the same total in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. The 2020 season was a wash for everyone, so he still has 2 more years of eligibility at Michigan State — plenty enough time to etch his name somewhere next to the aforementioned legends.
Through 4 games, Walker leads the country — not just the Big Ten — in rushing with 554 yards; he’s scored 5 TDs on 76 carries — that’s 1 every 15 touches. Only Michigan’s Blake Corum has a better TD-to-carry ratio among rushers in the top 10.
Walker is a workhorse back — like the aforementioned stars — who’s immediately shown what he can do for the Spartans. He’s a Doak Walker candidate, a very-early person of interest in the Heisman race (if we’re taking Heisman talk seriously right now) and exactly what MSU needs during a rebuilding phase.