EAST LANSING — In a game that has everything, it’s usually one thing that decides it. For Michigan football, the one thing was a mistake. For Michigan State football, it was a streak of lightning running back who hadn’t played in one of these intrastate wars before, and never even saw one growing up.
“When I was younger,” Kenneth Walker III would say, “I didn’t watch much football.”
That’s OK. Everyone is watching him now. Here is what the soft-spoken transfer from Wake Forest did Saturday in MSU’s huge 37-33 win over Michigan: score five touchdowns, rack up just shy of 200 rushing yards, break the back of the U-M run defense, which had been ranked as one of the best in the nation, and toss his towel into the deep end of the Heisman Trophy pool.
“He had a good game,” mumbled Wolverines lineman Aidan Hutchinson. “So, yeah.”
“Very good back,” snapped U-M coach Jim Harbaugh. “Great back.”
You know when the other team doesn’t want to talk about you, you did something right.
Not just right. Downright stunning. On a day that saw two top-10 teams rack up 70 points, nearly 1,000 yards of offense, three interceptions, four field goal tries on a single play, a botched punt, two failed flea flickers and a cluster of overturned-by-replay moments, Walker was the transcendent player.
If this was a Russian novel, he was the end of every important sentence.
When MSU needed a big play — and they often needed a big play — he was the go-to. He banged into people and bounced off like a rubber ball. He slanted left or right then cut upfield like a water bug. He exploded through blocks for a 58-yard touchdown, a 27-yard touchdown, a 23-yard touchdown, an 8-yard touchdown and, just to mix it up, a 1-yard touchdown in which he propelled a pile of players with him across the white stripe.
“That’s our motto, ‘Keep chopping,” Walker would say.
You can take a breath, kid. The Michigan tree fell down.
Newcomer becomes rivalry legend
What a game this was. Epic. Like four years of a Netflix series rolled into one. Michigan took an early 10-0 lead thanks to an interception and a 93-yard catch-and-sprint from Wolverine freshman Andrel Anthony Jr., who went to high school a five-minute bike ride from Spartan Stadium.
But Walker’s first touchdown tightened the score, and his second put the Spartans ahead 14-13. That’s why he was so valuable Saturday. In these rivalry games, you have to keep the enemy in sight. Too much distance, and the emotion can turn crushing.
Walker was the cavalry. So when the Wolverines ran off 17 unanswered points, thanks largely to a career day from their quarterback Cade McNamara (383 yards, two touchdowns; in a parallel universe where a few calls went the other way, McNamara would be commanding the headlines this morning), the Spartans were never out of it, because Walker was always in it.
The Spartans mounted their comeback initially on the arm of quarterback Payton Thorne and the hands of Jayden Reed, who caught four passes on a fast-scoring drive which was finished off by — who else? — Walker and his rugby-scrum 1-yard run for the touchdown.
Then, on their next series, it was Walker again, on third-and-3, cutting to his right and turning upfield so fast he left skid marks. Fifty-eight yards later, he was in the end zone — 58 yards? — and after a two-point conversion, the game was tied.
Michigan’s lead was gone, and its confidence was leaking. The way Walker runs will do that to you.
“He’s the best running back in the nation,” said Reed of his teammate. “He does it week in week out.”
Yes, but the other weeks weren’t against Michigan, the arch rival and one of the stingiest defenses in the country. The Wolverines were averaging just 116 yards allowed on the ground. Walker almost doubled that by himself.
“What did you think about your first Michigan-Michigan State game?” Walker was asked.
“I believe it was a great game, super intense,” answered the easygoing junior who grew up in Tennessee and spent two years at Wake Forest for before transferring. “We watched a lot of history on the game. I didn’t know much (before that). But when I was able to see it and the alumni was able to talk to us, it meant that much more.”
Michigan’s critical error
Nobody had to tell Michigan’s players how much this meant. Which brings us to their one thing. The mistake.
It came at the worst time. Fourth quarter. Just over seven minutes left. U-M hanging onto a three-point lead, 33-30. A long drive and a touchdown could ice the game. You could feel the Spartan crowd holding its breath.
But not for long. Harbaugh sent out the backup quarterback J.J. McCarthy to start the drive. The 18 year-old freshman botched the first-down handoff to running back Blake Corum, the ball hit the ground, MSU recovered and the crowd roar could be heard all the way to Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor.
“That exchange didn’t go smoothly,” Harbaugh said.
Yeah. And ice cream is fattening.
McNamara said after the game he was getting checked out for an injury during the play. But Harbaugh had been peppering the freshman McCarthy in and out all day, and while the kid did throw a nice TD pass in the second quarter, to most observers, there wasn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to sitting McNamara down, given the excellent way he was playing.
Instead, with a ball wet from rain and a quarterback still wet behind the ears, the fumble occurred. The tide turned. You could feel it. The Wolverines were rattled.
On the ensuing MSU drive, U-M was called for holding on first down, and an illegal substitution a few plays later.
And then, the dagger. Walker, all 5 foot 10 of him, took the ball up the middle so fast, he could have run through the Red Sea if it hadn’t parted.
Touchdown, MSU. And for all intents and purposes, game over.
Still struggling with ‘the big one’
Naturally, the field hadn’t even cleared before you heard the anti-Harbaugh crowd calling for his head, screaming that he can’t win the big one, or any big ones, tweeting out his record of 3-9 against Michigan State and Ohio State, and 2-13 against top 10 teams.
And yes, there were moments when the defense just wasn’t fast enough to keep up with MSU’s tempo offense, and that is coaching, plain and simple.
But this game was truly close, against a great opponent, and if McNamara didn’t throw an interception in the final minute, the outcome might have been different. Michigan didn’t look overmanned or outsmarted. They gave punches. They took punches. This wasn’t last year, when the Spartans were 24-point underdogs and won anyhow.
But none of that matters to U-M faithful. They see a second-year Spartan coach, Mel Tucker, with two wins and no losses against Harbaugh now, and Ryan Day continuing what Urban Meyer started at Ohio State, and all that adds up to yet another season with lots of wins that diehards don’t care about and several losses that they do.
“It sucks,” said Michigan offensive lineman Andrew Vastardis. “It sucks from the top down. … A lot of people are going to hop off the bandwagon. But this season is not over. Not even close.”
Sky’s the limit for Spartans
We’ll see. Meanwhile, who knows what awaits the Spartans? On the one hand, Saturday was their first win against a team with a winning record this season. On the other hand, they are 8-0 and likely to be in the top six of this season’s first College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday.
They’ve got Penn State and Ohio State still to go. If they win out, they’ll be in the playoff for sure, a pretty damn impressive feat from a coach who just arrived last year and was whacked with the pandemic — and a running back who couldn’t get enough snaps at Wake Forest but can’t get enough for MSU.
“I told you our guys weren’t gonna quit,” Tucker gushed to the Fox TV cameras in the misty rain aftermath of his biggest win yet. “They just kept playing. Body blows. Body blows.”
Yep. And the largest blows of all came from one of the smaller bodies. But make no mistake. When Kenneth Walker III runs the ball, he’s a big, big man. And in a game that had everything, he was the one thing that tilted it.
Even if he’s still learning what the fuss is all about.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.