Michigan State football flattens Northwestern, 38-21, behind 4 TDs from Kenneth Walker III

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EVANSTON, Ill. — Kenneth Walker III rushed 23 times for 264 yards and four touchdowns in his Michigan State football debut as the Spartans showed a run game that had been missing for the better part of the past two seasons.

Walker started the game with a bang, rumbling 75 yards on the first play from scrimmage to give MSU a 7-0 lead. It was the first rushing touchdown by an MSU running back since the 2019 season. (The Spartans' two rushing TDs last year were scored by a quarterback and tight end.)

Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III runs for a touchdown past Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph during the first half on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Evanston, Illinois.
Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III runs for a touchdown past Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph during the first half on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Evanston, Illinois.

The man under center, Payton Thorne, performed well for the Spartans, too. After being named the Spartans' starter shortly before kickoff, Thorne completed 15 of his 25 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown.

On defense, the Spartans allowed 390 yards to Northwestern, and struggled at time to stop Northwestern quarterback Hunter Johnson, who threw for 283 yards and three touchdowns.

Chris Solari

Detroit Free Press

EVANSTON, Ill. – It began with the answer to the months-long quarterback question. And Payton Thorne quickly became a secondary story.

Kenneth Walker III delivered exactly what Connor Heyward predicted a month ago: “Home run. Every time he touches the ball.”

At least the first time, as Walker took a handoff from Thorne on the first play of the game for a 75-yard touchdown run to set the tone immediately Friday night. His 264 yards on 23 carries and four scores revived a years-dormant run game, and Thorne played the game manager role effectively in leading the Spartans to a 38-21 victory over Northwestern at Ryan Field.

The Spartans host Youngstown State next Saturday (noon/Big Ten Network).

Run Walker

Going into the season, it had been 701 minutes and 24 seconds of football played since an MSU running back scored a touchdown on the ground, a span of nearly 11 1/2 games since Elijah Collins’ second TD of the game against Illinois in 2019.

It took Walker 13 seconds to change that.

The 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior running back showed his knack for finding the end zone he showed at Wake Forest, where his 17 career rushing touchdowns were more than the Spartans got from all of their running backs since 2018. MSU managed just seven in 2018, nine in 2019 and none last season.

Walker got the ball on MSU’s first play of the season, then immediately cut toward fellow transfer Jarrett Horst at left tackle and picked up key blocks from Heyward and receiver Jayden Reed. A juke froze Northwestern safety Bryce Jackson, and Walker cut outside and blasted up the lakeside sideline and headed south with a burst, like he wouldn’t be stopped until he reached the bleachers at Wrigley Field.

By the second drive, Walker carried five more times for 28 yards to become the first Spartan to run for 100 yards since Collins did it against Rutgers in 2019. And Walker punctuated a 10-play, 74-yard drive with a 3-yard score with another jump cut to freeze the defense from 3 yards out.

In the third quarter, after the Wildcats scored near the end of the first half and drove deep into MSU territory to open the second, the defense forced a second missed Charlie Kuhbander field goal. Walker finished another drive around the left end, diving for the pylon and a 5-yard score to make it 28-7.

Northwestern again scored on a second Hunter Johnson to Trey Pugh touchdown with 11:17 remaining to cut the Spartans’ lead to two scores. But Walker again flipped the field with a 50-yard burst and then converted a fourth-and-1 deep in Wildcats territory. It set up Matt Coghlin’s 37-yard field goal with 6:04 to play that put the game away.

Walker became MSU's first 200-yard game since Le'Veon Bell had 266 vs. Minnesota in 2012. He also became the first Spartan with three rushing touchdowns in a game since Jeremy Langford against Baylor in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015.

Then with 1:29 to play and MSU’s lead back to 10, Walker hopped his way to a 6-yard score to become the first MSU running back with four rushing touchdowns since Edwin Baker did it vs. Minnesota in 2010.


Second-year coach Mel Tucker made it official before the game that Thorne, the sophomore who started MSU’s final game of 2020 at Penn State, won the starting

And the native of nearby Naperville, Illinois, did a solid job moving the Spartans up and down the field and spreading the ball to his receivers.

The 6-2, 210-pound sophomore went 15 of 26 for 185 yards and a 14-yard screen pass touchdown to running back Jordon Simmons early in the second quarter that made it 21-0 MSU. Thorne also ran five times for 28 yards after beating out Temple grad transfer Anthony Russo for the starting job.

MSU outgained Northwestern, 511-396, in beating Pat Fitzgerald for the second straight year under Tucker after losing three straight and four of the last five under Mark Dantonio.

The Spartans, who had one of the most anemic offenses in the country a year ago and have struggled to run the ball consistently since 2017, had 326 yards on the ground.

Running back Harold Joiner III left the game after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit with 4:47 to play, but there was no targeting called on the play after a booth review.

Defense revamped

MSU’s defense showed a bend-but-don’t break mindset for much of the game.

Cornerbacks Kalon Gervin and Ronald Williams each gave up a 40-plus yard pass in the first quarter in single coverage, but the Spartans recovered to hold the Wildcats without points.

The Spartans rotated six defensive tackles, as well as five linebackers and five defensive ends. Gervin, Williams and safeties Xavier Henderson and Angelo Grose were fixtures. Michael Dowell and Darius Snow switched on and off at nickel back.

The results were mixed. Johnson threw for 283 yards on 30 of 43 passing with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Northwestern also converted 9 of 24 third and fourth downs, and the middle of the defense lost tight ends Trey Pugh and Charlie Mangieri for the first two touchdowns. Williams gave up the third to Stephon Robinson Jr., with 2:27 to play.

But Henderson, Williams and Tennessee transfer linebacker Quavaris Crouch each had a sack as MSU managed to put consistent pressure on the Northwestern quarterback.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football flattens Northwestern, 38-21