The 2021 Michigan State football season was a magical one.
Mel Tucker, in his second year as MSU’s head coach, took the Spartans from a 2-5 record to a remarkable 11-2 season. Vegas had set the win total line around four and a half wins, and all it took was five games for Michigan State to cash in. It was an astronomical leap that nobody saw coming — at least for a program dubbed at the beginning of a rebuild.
Tucker was crowned with a market-resetting 10-year, $95 million contract in November and one month later led MSU to a Peach Bowl victory over Pittsburgh. He’s continued to turn heads nationally in June with a relentless recruiting effort during the official visits period, flashing on social media with luxury vehicle photo shoots on the Spartan Stadium grass and cookouts at the Tucker household.
A lot of the Spartans’ success is attributed to running back Kenneth Walker III and rightfully so. He put up one of the most astounding individual seasons in Michigan State history and will forever be enshrined as an MSU great.
As for this list, Walker alone could easily make up every single one of the top-five greatest moments from the 2021 season. Perhaps we will save that for a later date. However, this is a list reflecting on the entire team and not an easy one to cap at just five.
But it wouldn’t be proper to start without Walker’s breakout performance in his very first game as a Spartan:
Disclaimer: These moments are simply ranked in chronological order, not 1-5.
Kenneth Walker III makes his name known – Week 1 at Northwestern
There was no real telling how good Michigan State would be in 2021 with a slew of new faces on the roster. Rather than opening with a non-conference opponent, MSU faced what would appear to be a tough first opponent, traveling to Northwestern to take on the defending Big Ten West champions.
If you recall, all attention was geared toward the quarterback position. There was no telling who would be the Spartans’ starting quarterback until warmups began at Ryan Field.
With then-redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne winning the job, Michigan State received the opening kickoff for a touchback and took over at its own 25.
Thorne took the snap from the pistol formation, turned to his right for a handoff to Walker, who launched toward the line of scrimmage and cut back to the left. Connor Heyward, who was playing in his first game at tight end after making the offseason switch from running back, provided a key block to seal the edge. Wide receiver Jayden Reed threw a block on the outside to a Northwestern linebacker while Walker juked a Northwestern safety to turn the corner.
Then, Walker turned on the jets and completed the 75-yard touchdown run on the season’s first play from scrimmage.
It was the beginning of Walker’s dominance, both throughout the season and in that particular game. Walker found the end zone three more times that night while totaling 264 yards on 23 carries. That marked the seventh-most rushing yards in a single game from a Spartan and the most of all-time in a Michigan State debut.
Jayden Reed punt return touchdown – Week 4 vs. Nebraska
For the first time in the early Michigan State season, the offense was in a lull. After scoring 38, 42 and 38 points in the weeks prior, MSU was sitting at just 13 points late in the fourth quarter, trailing Nebraska by seven.
Walker was bottled up, averaging a modest 3.2 yards per carry. Thorne wasn’t spectacular either, finishing 14 of 23 for 185 yards for one touchdown and one interception.
MSU’s defense forced a three-and-out on a key tackle from then-redshirt junior defensive tackle Jacob Slade. Facing a fourth and three from its own 28 with four minutes to play, Nebraska elected to punt the ball away to the buoyed Michigan State offense.
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Special teams coordinator Ross Els sent two returners deep instead of one, Reed and fellow wide receiver Jalen Nailor, and the Cornhuskers didn’t sniff the trickery.
Nebraska’s punt went short and to the left, giving Reed a head of steam while everyone else on the field drifted to the right where Nailor played his bluff. By the time Nebraska’s special teams realized it had been put in a blender, it was too late. Reed was across midfield, made one man miss and blazed down the sideline for the punt return touchdown.
Michigan State’s prayers had been answered and an extension of the undefeated season was back in the picture.
The game went to overtime, where Nebraska was first on offense. Then-junior cornerback Chester Kimbrough grabbed an interception on third down, setting up a walk-off Matt Coghlin field goal from 21 yards out.
Jalen Nailor goes nuclear – Week 6 at Rutgers
Rutgers got the first blood of Tucker at Michigan State in 2020, forcing seven turnovers for a 38-27 victory.
Nailor was coming off his first 100-yard outing of the season, but it was nowhere near as impressive as his record-breaking day at Rutgers. It was an absolute firework show with three touchdown receptions all over 63 yards. In the first half alone, Nailor was already up to 208 receiving yards.
✅ 63-yard TD ✅ 63-yard TD ✅ 65-yard TD
Jalen Nailor reels in the flea flicker for his third (!) TD of the first half. 🤯
Rutgers turned its defensive attention toward stopping Nailor in the second half, limiting him to just one catch for 13 yards. Still, it was the fourth-most receiving yards in a single game in MSU history and the most yards per reception (44.2) in a game by a Big Ten Player since 2000.
With the second half attention narrowed in on Nailor, Walker broke a 94-yard touchdown run, capped with a high-five between Walker and Nailor before entering the endzone. It was a celebration not just of a 6-0 record, but also another dynamite performance by the Spartan offense.
Kenneth Walker III’s signature performance – Week 9 vs. Michigan
If you’re a Michigan State fan, you likely remember this game like it was yesterday, so this will be short.
Michigan and Michigan State faced off in East Lansing as a battle between two undefeated, top-10 teams in one of the most highly anticipated games of the entire college football season. The Wolverines jumped out to two double-digit leads, but MSU kept fighting on the back of Walker.
He delivered his marquee performance on the big stage, totaling 197 rushing yards and five touchdowns. It was a stupendous effort from Walker, whose fifth touchdown of the game late in the fourth quarter was the game-winner.
Fox Sports’ Gus Johnson’s call on the play was pretty cool too.
MSU storms back from a double-digit deficit to reach 11 wins – Peach Bowl vs. Pittsburgh
Walker opted out and so did Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett – one of the five Heisman Trophy finalists.
Pickett’s backup, Nick Patti, led the Panthers to a scoring drive early in the game, but did not return to the game after sustaining an injury while diving for the pylon. That left Pitt on its third-string quarterback, Davis Beville.
Pittsburgh didn’t flinch and jumped out to an 11-point lead early in the third when a Thorne fumble was scooped for a 26-yard defensive touchdown. The Panthers didn’t score the rest of the way, but MSU still trailed by five with under three minutes to play.
Thorne floated a 50-50 ball from 22 yards out in Reed’s direction, who came down with the catch to give the Spartans a three-point lead.
Then the Pittsburgh offense found its legs for the first time of the second half, driving down to the MSU 26 with less than a minute left and a threat to tie or take the lead. Then-redshirt linebacker Cal Haladay lined up in-between the tackles on the line of scrimmage and dropped back into coverage. Beville threw the ball right to the gloveless Haladay, who turned up the sideline for a 78-yard pick-six to put the game on ice.