Redshirt junior running back Kenneth Walker III did not pay much attention to college football as a kid. His father was into it, but Walker was always playing sports and never had time to watch college football or the NFL.
Walker decided to pick up his roots and transfer from Wake Forest to Michigan State in the offseason, even then he still did not know much about the legendary Michigan-Michigan State rivalry up until this week.
“During the bye week we went over a lot of things and watched a lot of videos on alumni and past games,” Walker said after the game. “That’s when I found out this was a big rivalry.”
Walker said he did not believe that he needed to have a big game in order for No. 8 Michigan State to pull off an upset win over No. 6 Michigan, but he had another monstrous performance Saturday to not only push MSU to a 37-33 victory, but leave a legacy on the in-state rivalry and to solidify himself as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate on a big stage.
In week one Walker came out with a bang scoring on the first play from scrimmage in a 264-yard, four-touchdown effort. In week five he went for 126 yards and three touchdowns versus Western Kentucky, flirting with the possibility of Walker potentially being a Heisman Trophy candidate.
But now after a 197-yard, five-touchdown performance in one of the biggest games played in East Lansing, Walker has the national eyes to confirm what the Michigan State faithful have been preaching since snap No. 1 of the season: Kenneth Walker III for Heisman.
“Every time he touches the ball, he’s got a chance to do something special,” Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker said. “When you have a guy like that, the offensive line they’re going to strain, they’re going to finish and they’re going to believe. The tight ends and receivers, they are going to strain. They’re going to block, but they know that he can pop one at any moment."
On Saturday, Walker, along with the entire team did not really get going until the second quarter. Offensively the team was moving the ball, but two interceptions from redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne dug MSU into a 10-0 hole. When the opening quarter ended, the teams flipped sides and 15 minutes were put back onto the clock, Michigan State looked like a rejuvenated squad. Walker received the handoff up the middle, had nothing going for him and bounced it outside for a 27-yard score on the first play of the quarter.
“On the first one, we’re in the huddle and I say ‘Let’s just forget the red zone and let’s just score right here' and he did so that was good,” Thorne said.
On the ensuing drive, Michigan State faced a fourth and one near midfield and elected to go for it. Thorne connected with redshirt junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor for 40 yards before being brought down from behind 8 yards shy of the end zone. Walker got the ball on the next play and dove into the right corner of the end zone for his second touchdown and MSU’s first lead of the game at 14-13.
Walker’s third touchdown of the game was again set up by a big play on a fourth-down conversion. The Spartans were in field goal range, but with Michigan State down 16 points in the third quarter, Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson wanted to be aggressive. Thorne lobbed a perfect pass down the sideline that redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed hauled in at the one-yard line. From there, Walker did the rest and plunged into the endzone for a touchdown.
Down eight points early in the fourth quarter, Walker had his most explosive of his five touchdowns scampering for a 58-yard score that helped tie the game after a successful two-point conversion.
At that point, Michigan had not turned the ball overall game, but with seven minutes to play Michigan freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy. McCarthy, who only occasionally gets playing time, had trouble on an exchange and MSU recovered the fumble in Wolverine territory.
Just needing a field goal to tie or a touchdown to take the lead, everyone knew the man with four touchdown runs was going to get the ball. With just over five minutes to play, Walker received the handoff, burst through the middle of the line of scrimmage and raced past the Michigan secondary for a 23-yard score and the eventual game-winner.
Michigan junior linebacker David Ojabo said after the game that Walker’s ability to bounce out of tackles is what makes him so incredibly hard to bring down.
“He’s a good back and he showed that today,” Ojabo said.
Yet despite all the big moments and his entering into the Heisman Trophy race, Walker continues to be just as humble as he was to start the season. Always crediting his teammates and always putting the team’s accomplishments ahead of his personal ones.
“Overall, I don’t feel like it was a Heisman moment, just a great team win,” Walker said, “...I just gotta give credit to the O-line.”
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