BLOOMINGTON – Michigan State’s surprise transformation to Big Ten title contender in Year 2 under head coach Mel Tucker has centered on a ground attack led by talented transfer running back Kenneth Walker III.
Stopping Walker will be one of the keys for Indiana’s defense when the Hoosiers (2-3, 0-2) host the No. 10 Spartans (6-0, 3-0) on Saturday (noon, FS1) for homecoming at Memorial Stadium.
It won’t be an easy task. Walker has shredded opposing defenses so far with his combination of speed, power and cutback ability, leading the Big Ten in rushing with 913 yards and nine TDs.
“He’s really good,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “Great balance. Great vision. Makes guys miss. Patient. Strong. Tough. Runs hard. He’s right now the leading rusher in the Big Ten, top in the country. Makes them different.”
IU’s front seven has been up to the task stopping the run so far this season, allowing 128.6 yards per game. No individual back has rushed for more than 100 yards against the Hoosiers this season, with Iowa’s Tyler Goodson coming closest with 99 yards.
“We know he’s a good back and he runs hard,” IU linebacker Cam Jones said. “He’s good in space, good in the holes, but at the end of the day we’ve just got to tackle and wrap him up.”
Jones knows of Walker because both were Memphis-area high school standouts. Jones played at St. Benedict at Auburndale in Cordova, Tennessee, while Walker was a standout at Arlington High School in Arlington, Tennessee.
Asked if Jones received any advice from friends in Memphis facing Walker, he responded: “They just say he’s got some big legs, so hit his legs, take him from the top (of the legs) and chop them down.”
Walker has emerged as a Heisman Trophy contender after two nondescript years at Wake Forest. He ranked third among ACC freshman with 579 yards rushing in 2019, then rushed for 579 and 13 TDs in 2020 for the Demon Deacons.
But Walker made his mark in the Big Ten right away, rushing for 75 yards and a TD on his first carry in the conference against Northwestern. Walker ended up rushing for 264 yards and four TDs against Northwestern and hasn’t let up since, rushing for 100 or more yards in three of his last five games. He’s coming off his second 200-plus yard rushing game of the season, rushing for 233 yards and one TD in Michigan State’s 31-13 win over Rutgers last Saturday.
“We’re ready to step up to the challenge,” IU defensive lineman Sio Nofoagatoto’a said. “There’s a lot of hype around him. It’s also a big challenge. We feel like if we can make them one dimensional and stop their go-to — the bread and butter of their offense — I feel like we can put ourselves in a position to win. We’re just ready as a d-line and as a defense to be sound gap wise and just make plays and then be there for our team.”
The emergence of Walker also has opened up Michigan State’s passing game, which struggled last season. Payton Thorne has settled in as starting quarterback for the Spartans, passing for 1,575 yards with a TD-to-interception ratio of 14-2. Thorne was able to connect with Jalen Nailor on a 63-yard TD pass off play action against Rutgers and threw another 65-yard TD pass to Nailor off a flea flicker from Walker.
“Last week they got several big explosive plays, especially the first half, game-changing plays, and they’ve got several talented receivers that do a great job,” Allen said. “But that to me is the run game is what makes them go, gives them their identity, for sure. And they stick with that, play with that. They’ll be true with that for sure.”
GATES OPENING EARLY
Indiana announced Wednesday gates will open two hours before kickoff at Memorial Stadium its next two home games, Saturday against Michigan State (noon) and Oct. 23 against Ohio State (7:30 p.m.). Lots will open at 7 a.m. for tailgating before the Michigan State game. With a large crowd expected for homecoming against MSU and a sellout crowd announced for Ohio State, the move to open the gates earlier was made to prevent fans from encountering longer lines when entering the stadium.