EAST LANSING — All week, players and coaches from the Michigan football team sang the praises of Kenneth Walker III.
Michigan State’s star running back entered this Saturday’s clash leading the country in rushing yards per game. The Wolverines talked about his quickness, elusiveness and football IQ. However, they also claimed they knew he could be successfully contained.
“If we just execute, if we do what we have to do, we should be successful on Saturday,” senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson said Tuesday. “But (Walker) is a real big threat, and we’re really highlighting him this week. If we execute and do our thing, we should be good.”
But as Walker crossed the goal line at Spartan Stadium not once, not twice, but five times on Saturday afternoon, it quickly became clear that wasn’t true. Walker consistently torched Michigan’s defense, racking up 208 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns on 26 touches. His final trip to the end zone put Michigan State on top for good, cementing the Wolverines’ crushing 37-33 loss.
“He had an outstanding performance,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He’s a very good (running) back. A great back.”
Midway through the third quarter, Michigan led by 16 points. With both the scoreboard and clock on their side, the Wolverines’ defense merely needed to stave off big plays to escape East Lansing with a season-altering top-10 win. Up double digits in the second half, most units would turn their attention toward defending the passing game.
Not against the Spartans.
Michigan State kept feeding Walker in the ground game. He scored a one-yard touchdown to make it a one-possession game before breaking free for a 58-yard score. The Spartans were successful on both two-point conversions, tying the score at 30 apiece early in the fourth quarter.
Asked what made Walker so difficult to defend, junior edge David Ojabo paused.
“His ability to bounce out of tackles and, when you think you have him, to extend plays,” Ojabo said. “He’s a good back. He showed that, for sure.”
Just after Michigan State got the ball back with a chance to take the lead, it was Walker who put the final nail in the Wolverines’ coffin. He ripped off a 23-yard touchdown run with just over five minutes to play — the fifth time Michigan watched the back of his jersey trot into the end zone. Walker’s five touchdowns were the most scored by a Spartan in a single game since 2008.
When Michigan State stunned the Wolverines in Ann Arbor last year, it was then-freshman receiver Ricky White who swung the pendulum in the Spartans’ favor. An unknown commodity at the time, White torched Michigan to the tune of 196 receiving yards and a touchdown. Earlier this week, Wolverines’ senior cornerback Vince Gray admitted he didn’t even know White’s name entering last fall’s meeting — a testament to Michigan’s preparation woes.
This year, however, was the opposite tale. The difference-maker wasn’t buried at the bottom of the scouting report — rather, Walker was the headliner. And the Wolverines still couldn’t stop him.
“It kind of goes back to the grand scheme of things,” sixth-year center Andrew Vastardis said. “We make plays, they make plays, it tallies up in the end. Who makes the most?”
The answer on Saturday was Kenneth Walker.