Kenneth Walker III runs wild as MSU tramples Northwestern in opener

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Evanston, Ill. — There was likely more than one Michigan State fan who was shocked by how things played out in Friday night’s opener at Northwestern, particularly in the first few seconds.

On the first play from scrimmage, Kenneth Walker III took a handoff from Payton Thorne, burst through the left side of the line and raced down the sidelines for a 75-yard touchdown, giving Michigan State a lead just 13 seconds into the game.

Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III runs past Northwestern defensive back Bryce Jackson on the way to a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Evanston, Ill., Friday, Sept. 3, 2021.

That was a shocker.

Just not to the guys wearing green and white on the sidelines.

"We see that every day in practice from him," coach Mel Tucker said. "I mean, that's what he does."

“I've seen him do that in practice about 50 times,” Thorne said.

When senior safety Xavier Henderson entered the postgame media room, he offered an apology.

“I’m sorry I didn’t hype Kenneth Walker enough,” Henderson said with a laugh. “He’s like Booby Miles (from the movie ‘Friday Night Lights’). He can do it all.”

SUMMARY: MSU 38, Northwestern 21

That much was clear from the first play to nearly the last as Walker ran for 264 yards and four touchdowns to lead Michigan State to an impressive 38-21 victory over Northwestern at Ryan Field.

An auspicious start for the transfer from Wake Forest in his first game as a Spartan.

“Never,” Walker said, grinning behind his mask, when asked if he’d ever had a game like that. “It was just a blessing to be able to come out here and show what we can do as a team. I’m thankful for the team, thankful for Coach Tucker, just thankful for this opportunity.”

Walker’s performance signaled Michigan State might be a team to be reckoned with. It also vetted Tucker’s pursuit of Walker. The Spartans didn’t have a single rushing touchdown from a running back last season, so Tucker knew he needed to upgrade the ground game heading into 2021. One of the first moves Tucker made was securing a commitment from Walker III, who scored 13 touchdowns last fall.

Walker's performance is the seventh-best in program history for rushing yards in a single game. He is the first Spartan to score four rushing touchdowns in a game since Edwin Baker in 2010. He is also the first to run for 200 yards in a game since Le’Veon Bell, who ran for 266 yards against Minnesota in 2012.

“I give credit to the offensive line,” Walker said. “We always give the credit to the skill players, the running backs, wide receivers and quarterbacks. But it starts off with the O-line. They did a great job tonight, an excellent job tonight.”

It was a humble response, but it was truly a team effort.

Thorne, who was named the starter before the game after beating out graduate transfer Anthony Russo, was solid, completing 15 of 26 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown. Most importantly, he had no interceptions. He also ran five times for 28 yards and connected with running back Jordon Simmons on a 14-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.

“I played OK, honestly,” Thorne said. “Obviously, really happy about the win. I definitely missed a few things that we could have capitalized on that I think could have made the game a little bit larger margin. So definitely, we’ve got a lot to work on still and we're going to do that this week.”

Northwestern quarterback Hunter Johnson threw for 283 yards and three touchdowns, two to tight end Trey Pugh and one late to Stephon Robinson Jr.

“It’s not what we prepared for,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose team won the Big Ten West last season. “Credit Michigan State. They were able to win the line of scrimmage and that’s the bottom line. They were able to get explosive runs and we missed some tackles.”

After Walker got things rolling, the defense got a quick stop as Northwestern kicker Charlie Kuhbander was wide right on a 44-yard field-goal attempt. Soon, the Spartans were marching again. Thorne started to get into a rhythm by completing his first three passes before Walker ripped off a 23-yard run to set Michigan State up at the Northwestern 3-yard line. On the next play, Walker made one cut then walked into the end zone to give the Spartans a 14-0 lead with 7:44 left in the first quarter.

Michigan State was forced to punt on its next two drives while its defense was doing the same to the Wildcats. By early in the second quarter, Michigan State was moving again, capping a four-play drive with a 14-yard screen pass from Thorne to Simmons. The sophomore back got good blocking and made a good cut late to find the end zone and put the Spartans ahead, 21-0, with 9:45 left in the half.

Northwestern got on the scoreboard when Johnson hit Pugh with a 1-yard touchdown pass on fourth down to cut Michigan State’s lead to 21-7, 59 seconds before intermission. Michigan State had one last crack at points, but Matt Coghlin’s 60-yard field-goal attempt was short as time expired.

After the defense held to open the second half and Kuhbander missed another field goal, Thorne got the offense cranked up again, going 5-for-6 on Michigan State’s first drive of the third quarter. He moved the Spartans deep into Northwestern territory before Walker scored for the third time on a 5-yard scamper to the end zone. That put the Spartans up 28-7, with 7:06 left in the third.

Northwestern pulled within two scores by mounting a 16-play drive that took nearly eight minutes and featured a pair of fourth-down conversions. It ended with a 5-yard TD pass from Johnson to Pugh with 11:17 to play, cutting the Michigan State lead to 28-14.

Coghlin booted a 37-yard field goal with 6:04 left before Walker's final touchdown with 1:29 to play to close the scoring for Michigan State.

“I was proud of the performance today,” Tucker said. “We knew it was gonna be a four-quarter game and we wanted to start fast. And we did that.

“This is not the end, this is just the beginning. … This was just one football game. Now we have a marker, and this is where we are.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau