It’s no secret that the Michigan football team has one of the best running back tandems in the country. But when it takes on rival Michigan State on Saturday, the Wolverines’ duo could be overshadowed by the Spartans’ star, Kenneth Walker III, who leads the nation in rushing yards per game with 142.4.
Walker has also added nine touchdowns on the ground, helping Michigan State retool an offense that ranked dead last in the Big Ten in scoring during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
This year, Michigan won its first seven games. The Spartans did the same. And when the state’s undefeated titans clash in East Lansing on Saturday, the ground game could very well swing the pendulum in either side’s favor.
“It’s definitely important to keep Kenneth Walker contained this game,” fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross said Monday. “That’s a guy that can make big plays, and can make you pay if you’re not in the right spots on defense. Definitely, it’s going to be a goal for us to contain them, and stop him and neutralize him for sure. That’ll be a big piece for us.”
Added senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson: “He’s a real good back. He’s super talented. If we just execute, if we do what we have to do, we should be successful on Saturday. But he’s a real big threat, and we’re really highlighting him this week. If we execute and do our thing, we should be good.”
Through the first two months of this season, Walker has established himself as a Heisman candidate. He transferred to Michigan State after spending the first two years of his college career at Wake Forest. It’s not often a running back wins the award or makes the trip to New York for the final ceremony, but Walker’s special campaign has put him squarely in the conversation.
Walker’s dominant start has Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s full attention. The Wolverines have been vulnerable to big individual performances in this rivalry under Harbaugh, such as Ricky White’s 196 receiving yards in 2020, L.J. Scott’s 139 rushing yards in 2016 and Aaron Burbridge’s 132 receiving yards in 2015.
Going into Saturday, Harbaugh knows Walker is capable of adding another bullet point to that list.
“He’s got great vision, really good balance,” Harbaugh said. “He runs their zone schemes, their man schemes extremely well. He’s fast. He looks to be about a mid-4.4 (40-yard dash time) guy. But he’s also big, too. The most impressive thing with him is the yards he gets after contact. I think it’s about 4.5 yards after contact. So, he’s a fine back.”
Walker’s success this season has even attracted attention from the Wolverines’ offensive skill players. Sophomore running back Blake Corum, who ranks No. 20 nationally in rushing yardage, is aware of his counterpart on the other sideline.
“As a competitor, you always want to beat whoever you’re playing, offense and defense,” Corum said. “I don’t really watch film on their offense, obviously, but I’ve heard his name. People have talked about him, so I know what he’s done.”
The stakes of this season’s in-state rivalry have been well-documented. It’s the first top-10 matchup since 1964. Given each team’s unblemished record and College Football Playoff hopes, Harbaugh went as far as to liken it to an “elimination” game.
“(Michigan State) ruined our season last year,” senior defensive back Vince Gray said. “We’ve got a chance to ruin their season this year.”
With a strong defensive performance, the Wolverines might just ruin Walker’s Heisman candidacy, too.