RB Kenneth Walker III delivers monster performance in Michigan State debut

RB Kenneth Walker III delivers monster performance in Michigan State debut

That’s all it took for running back Kenneth Walker III to make a splash in his Michigan State debut.

Walker, a transfer from Wake Forest, took a handoff from Payton Thorne, bounced outside to the left and was gone for a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game. That set the tone in Michigan State’s 38-21 win in the season-opener at Northwestern on Friday night.

“We wanted to start fast,” second-year Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. We see that every day in practice from him. That’s what he does.” “We were able to do that. It was a momentum play, obviously. " 

Walker delivered a fast start for the Spartans as well as the dagger with a late touchdown run to ice the game. He finished with 23 carries for a career-high 264 yards and four touchdowns.

The monster performance by Walker checked off a number of notable accomplishments, including the seventh-most rushing yards in a game in program history and most in a debut with the Spartans. He became Michigan State’s first 200-yard rusher since Le’Veon Bell in a win against Minnesota on Nov. 24, 2012 and the first with four rushing touchdowns in a game since Edwin Baker in a win against Minnesota on Nov. 6, 2010.

“I just want to say I’m sorry for maybe not hyping Kenneth up enough,” Michigan State safety Xavier Henderson said.

Michigan State’s running game struggled in recent seasons and hit a new low last year by finishing 122nd out of 127 teams in the nation at only 91.4 yards per game – the lowest total in program records dating back to 1947. Walker, who rushed for 1,158 yards and 17 touchdowns on 217 carries in 20 games over his first two seasons at Wake Forest, didn’t feel like the offense was a right fit so he entered the portal and transferred to Michigan State.

“I didn’t feel pressure, it was more excitement,” Walker said.

Since his arrival on campus in January, coaches and teammates have praised Walker’s skillset. He appeared poised to take over as the starting running back but that wasn’t certain until the offense took the field on Friday night.

“Honestly, I was just reading my keys, doing what I’m coached,” Walker said, “and then an opportunity presented itself and I took it.”

On the first snap of the game, Walker got key blocks from tight end/H-back Connor Heyward and receiver Jayden Reed. He made one defender miss and was gone.

Count Thorne among those who wasn’t surprised by the outcome of Walker’s first carry with the Spartans.

“I’ve seen it in practice about 50 times,” he said.

Walker accounted for four of Michigan State’s five touchdowns and had five runs of at least 10 yards, including one of 50, while averaging 11.5 yards per carry. He did so behind a new-look offensive line that included Arkansas State left tackle transfer Jarrett Horst and featured some mixing and matching on Friday.

“I give credit to the offensive line. … It starts off with our O line and they did a great job tonight, an excellent job,” Walker said.

It didn’t even take a full first quarter for Walker to become Michigan State’s first 100-yard rusher in a game since Elijah Collins in a win at Rutgers on Nov. 23, 2019. By the time the night was over, he had more yards on the ground than any Spartan in the entire seven-game 2020 season.

Walker already had touchdown runs of 75, 3, and 5 yards when Michigan State led 31-14 late in the fourth quarter.  He had a 30-yard gain to set up a 6-yard touchdown run on the next play to close out the scoring. A Northwestern touchdown cut the margin to 10 points with 2:27 left and, although Walker thought he was already done for the night, he was put back in the game. Finishing games on the ground is something the Spartans haven’t been able to do in recent years but accomplished Friday night with their new starting running back.

“If we’re up early in a game or anything, we can’t get satisfied as a team,” Walker said. “That’s the bottom line – we just can’t get satisfied. We’ve got to keep chopping.”