Broken leg cuts bowl game short for Spartans' Willekes

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Thomas Graham Jr. (4) and Jaylon Redd (30) of the Oregon Ducks celebrate after Graham broke up a pass play to stop the Michigan State Spartans on fourth down late in the fourth quarter.

Santa Clara, Calif. — It’s not often Joe Bachie finds himself standing on a football field feeling unsure of himself.

But that’s exactly what happened to Michigan State’s junior linebacker during the third quarter of the Redbox Bowl against Oregon at Levi’s Stadium on Monday. A play had just ended and Bachie looked back after the whistle only to see junior defensive end Kenny Willekes not getting up.

The top defensive lineman in the Big Ten — one who earned first-team All-American honors from The Athletic as well as second-team honors from a handful of other publications — had just broken his left fibula as he rushed Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert.

That’s when Bachie went over to his teammate and close friend.

“I went up to him when it happened, and he said he felt something pop,” Bachie said. “At that moment — I know who Kenny is and he’ll fight through anything. Once he told me that it hit me and I kind of froze for a minute or two. And then he went to the sidelines.

“I know he’ll kill his treatment, kill his rehab and come back next year strong.”

While the 7-6 loss to the Ducks was bad enough as the offense again failed to find the end zone, the injury to Willekes was like salt in a wound.

One of the most productive players on an outstanding defense, Willekes had 20 1/2 tackles for loss this season along with 8 1/2 sacks. But for the last quarter and a half, the Spartans went without.

“It’s the kind of season we’ve had, basically, in that respect,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.

While some of the Spartans quickly understood how significant Willekes' injury was, others didn’t know until late in the game that he had broken his leg. That was because instead of staying in the locker room, Willekes was back on the sidelines, leg in a boot and walking with crutches.

“We didn’t know he was that severely hurt,” defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “But he came back on the field with a boot on and pumped everyone up. That’s just Kenny for you. He broke his fibula and it’s not about him. He came back on the field and cheered everybody else on.”

Added sophomore cornerback Josiah Scott, “You never question his heart. He always wants to be around his teammates. He wants to get everybody fired up and he’s a leader on this team. knowing Kenny, it didn’t surprise me at all seeing him on the sideline cheering and calling out what he sees.”

Whether Monday’s game was the last at Michigan State for Willekes remains to be seen. He said before the team left for the bowl game that he would wait until after to decide if he’d be back for his senior season or enter the NFL Draft.

“Obviously, we’d love to have him back,” Bachie said, “but it’s his decision.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau