Back in the beginning of January when junior running back Kenneth Walker III committed to Michigan State as a transfer, there was excitement for what he could bring to the team.
He was an explosive, talented athlete with home run potential every time he touched the ball - something the Spartans lacked mightily in 2020 from the running back position. At Wake Forest he rushed for 1,158 yards and 17 touchdowns in just 20 games.
There were high expectations and aspirations, but nobody expected the clinic the Arlington, Tennessee native put on against Northwestern Friday night.
Especially not on the very first play.
From the moment redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne handed the ball off to Walker, everyone knew Walker knew that he was finding his way to the endzone.
“We practiced this,” Walker said when asked if he knew right away it would be a touchdown. “We went over it all week. Honestly, I’d seen Jayden Reed pick up a good block and it was just one-on-one with the safety.”
23 carries, 264 yards and four touchdowns. 59 minutes and 47 seconds of game time later, that was his final stat line in the triumphant 38-21 Michigan State victory. It was the seventh most rushing yards in a single game from an MSU player and the most from a player making his debut. From start to finish, Walker was the star of the game in his Spartan debut.
On the second MSU drive, Walker went right back to work as the workhorse back. He, and the Spartans, were rewarded again with another Walker touchdown and with 7:44 of the clock still showing in the first quarter, Walker was already up to 103 yards. Michigan State, who did not get a single rushing touchdown from any of its running backs in 2020, had two rushing touchdowns, over 100 rushing yards and a 14-0 lead in just the first seven minutes and 16 seconds of the season opener.
Despite the need to get the monkey off the back and finally get a rushing touchdown from an MSU running back, Walker said he did not feel much pressure to be the guy to rejuvenate the Spartan running game.
“I didn't feel pressure,” Walker said. “It was more of excitement to show what we could do as a team. I knew they had my back either way if I didn't have four touchdowns.”
Back for the third quarter and needing to extend MSU’s lead to a more comfortable three possessions, Walker stepped up again with a five yard touchdown run for a 28-7 Michigan State lead.
Then just when the game seemed to be out of reach in the fourth quarter for the Wildcats and Walker’s day appeared to be done, number nine had his number called again.
With an onside kick recovery, a 31-21 lead and two and a half minutes to play, out onto the field came Walker looking to pad onto his already terrific day.
It took just four plays. A four yard run by Walker, a 12 yard run by Reed, a 30 yard run by Walker and a six yard run by Walker later, was all it took in the final moments of MSU’s victory for Walker to reach the historic 264 yards and four touchdowns.
Through all the excitement of the convincing win over the reigning Big Ten West champions and the unforgettable debut performance of Walker, the emotion of a new star in East Lansing was clear: humbleness.
“I give credit to the offensive line,” Walker said. “We always get the credit as skill players. We’re running backs, wide receivers and quarterbacks, but it starts off with that o-line. And they did a great job tonight.”
While Walker may not want to show-off, his teammates surely will, and they'll hope to build off his performance as the season continues on.
“I just want to say I'm sorry for maybe not hyping Kenneth up enough,” Michigan State senior safety Xavier Henderson began his press conference with after the game.
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