If you want to know how Michigan State went from a seemingly lost program to found in a matter of months, look no further than the transfer portal. And no one better illustrates the change the Spartans were able to accomplish than running back Kenneth Walker III.
After fielding the nation’s No. 122 rushing offense in 2020 with just 91 yards per game, MSU has flipped the script overnight. Through six games they are No. 21 nationally with 217 yards per contest.
“To me the run game makes them go and gives them their identity, for sure,” IU head coach Tom Allen said of Michigan State this week. “They stick with that, play with that, they’ll be true with that for sure.”
Walker is leading the way in the MSU backfield, and he leads all rushers in the NCAA. His 913 yards are 122 more than the next highest total in the country. According to Pro Football Focus, he has 132 more yards after contact than anyone in the country.
After transferring during the offseason from Wake Forest, Walker made a statement on his first carry in the green and white, showing off his elite speed.
“His first run of the whole season was a 75-yard touchdown run against Northwestern, first time he touched the football,” Allen said. “Just bounce the ball outside and nobody caught him.”
Walker had 579 yards each of his two seasons at Wake Forest, gaining 5.33 per carry with 17 touchdowns. MSU hasn’t exactly faced a murderer’s row of defenses to this point, and Walker has pounced on the opportunity, compiling nine more scores and a gaudy 7.1 yards per tote, the latter figure bolstered by several long runs including a 94-yarder at Rutgers last weekend.
When Indiana defensive coordinator Charlton Warren studies Walker, the thing that stands out above all else is the third-year back’s patience.
“He doesn’t just plug a gap, he lets the offensive line work from him,” Warren said. “He is eight yards deep in the backfield sometimes in that pistol set, but he lets the o-line work for him. He gets to three, four yards to the line of scrimmage, and makes an explosive cut and then accelerates at full speed.
“He’s very patient, lets the o-line work, makes a cut, and when he makes a cut, it’s full tilt. He has the speed to bounce it and outrun you, and he has the power to run through you or spin out of a couple tackles. That makes him an extremely versatile back. I think more of his patience, his vision, and his ability to explode off a cut are really elite.”
Indiana will of course be keyed in on stopping Walker, but that comes with risks.
The Spartans have been feasting on play-action opportunities as defenses start to lean into the running game, and quarterback Payton Thorne has been making them pay.
“They have a good complementary system and play-action off of that,” Allen said.
“The quarterback throws the ball well and protects the ball when taking shots down the field. Last week they got several big explosive plays, especially the first half, game-changing plays, and they have several talented receivers that do a great job.”
IU has been respectable against the run for the most part but they have given up a few big plays. including a 56-yarder by Iowa’s Tyler Goodsen that went for a score, and a 44-yard run by Penn State Keyvone Lee. The Hoosiers rank No. 52 nationally, allowing 131 yards per game.
“I think our guys have done a great job with their effort and their passion running to the ball,” Warren said after acknowledging those big plays. “I think we’ve tackled extremely really well so far this season. We can’t give up the explosive, or what I call the catastrophic runs.”
Warren’s gameplan for Walker and MSU?
“Make them earn it,” he said.
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