Kenneth Walker III closes season, and maybe career, at Michigan State with a bang
East Lansing — It was the last game at Spartan Stadium for at least 10 Michigan State players on Saturday, but the future of one Spartan, in particular, will be the focus over the next few weeks.
No. 12 Michigan State capped its regular season with a 30-27 victory over Penn State, its 10th win of the season and one that puts the Spartans in position to possibly play in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
And while it appears likely running back Kenneth Walker III will play in that bowl game, whether the Big Ten’s leading rusher will return to Michigan State next season remains somewhat of a mystery.
“I’m not sure right now,” Walker said when asked if he had played his last game in Spartan Stadium.
Walker, who is a potential Heisman Trophy finalist, ran for 138 yards and a touchdown against Penn State and finished the regular season with 1,636 yards, second most in the nation behind Lew Nichols of Central Michigan.
The fourth-year junior, who is a finalist for the Maxwell and Doak Walker awards, transferred in the offseason from Wake Forest but would almost certainly be selected in the NFL Draft if he opts to take that route.
And while he said plans to play in whatever bowl game the Spartans end up in, there’s a decent chance his days as a Spartan could be coming to an end.
If they are, his play on Saturday was a gritty performance on a slick track as snow blanketed the field.
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“K9, he's just a player,” coach Mel Tucker said. “We're an all-weather team but he's an all-weather back. Doesn't matter if we're on grass, we're on turf, we're down in Miami and it's hot, or snowing back here. Doesn't matter, he's going to get it done. He can get tough yards, he's shown that this season. It’s not just a bounce outside and try to get outside the corner and get out of there. He'll get up in there and get what he can get, because you never know when you're going to pop one.
“He’s shown toughness and talent, and that's important. He's not just a talented guy. He's tough and that's what great backs do.”
While Walker was doing what he has done all season, it was as impressive considering he was one of many that was battling the flu all week.
“We had to shuffle some lineups during the week and have contingency plans,” Tucker said. “We weren't exactly sure who was gonna be able to answer the bell, but we knew that the guys that could play, we knew that they would play if they could, and we knew that we would get everything that they had.
“It’s been a next-man-up mentality for the last three or four weeks and the guys have really embraced that. They've done what they needed to do to prepare to win a game like this, which was a very, very important game. It meant so much to everyone. So we dealt with some illness and we've battled through some injuries. Like I told them at the beginning of the week, this is tough sledding, and at the end of the day, you know, no one cares how many guys you got out, how many guys are sick, you gotta find a way to get it done.”
Walker said he never intended not to play on Saturday while others also made it through the entire game.
“This guy right here sucked it up pretty good, he was hurting yesterday,” quarterback Payton Thorne said of Walker. “He still isn't feeling great. Kevin Jarvis wasn't feeling great. Jacub Panasiuk wasn't feeling good. But there were a lot of guys who had the flu during the week, and maybe guys who didn't have the flu but did not feel good. We had IVs here a couple days ago. It was really a group effort on getting guys ready to go and battling through the adversity of this week.”
Sickness was only one issue for the Spartans on Saturday as injuries have been piling up for weeks.
Wide receiver Jalen Nailor was out for the fourth straight game while defensive tackle Simeon Barrow, who has missed the last two games, cornerback Charles Brantley, cornerback Marqui Lowery and tight end Tyler Hunt, who had played in all 11 games, were out. Left tackle was also out for the fourth straight game. And after playing a limited number of snaps last week, linebacker Quavaris Crouch missed Saturday’s game.
The kicking game was also affected.
Senior Matt Coghlin, who has been limited for the past four games, kicked a 22-yard field goal then limped to the sideline and was done for the day. Freshman Stephan Rusnak, who has filled in, kicked off early in the game but gave way Evan Morris.
For extra points, it was walk-on Evan Johnson. He missed his first extra-point attempt but made his second when Michigan State scored its final touchdown.
Ten Michigan State players appeared in their final home game, including center Matt Allen, tackle AJ Arcuri, defensive end Drew Beesley, tackle Luke Campbell, Coghlin and Panasiuk. Each came back for a sixth season while transfers Drew Jordan (DE), Spencer Rowland (DB), Anthony Russo (QB) and Cody Waddell (P) also played their final games at Michigan State.
Others who could come back were also celebrated on Saturday, including fifth-year senior tight end Connor Heyward and fourth-year junior defensive back Michael Dowell.