Kenneth Walker III has his “Heisman Game” in win over Michigan


MSU running back Kenneth Walker dives for the pylon in the Spartans’ 48-31 win over Western Kentucky on Oct. 2, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Aidan Champion, Football Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING — Saturday’s contest between No. 8 Michigan State and No. 6 Michigan was everything it had been expected to be. The Spartans defended their home field in the battle for Paul Bunyan, ultimately defeating the Wolverines 37-33. 

For much of the contest, it didn’t look like the final outcome would be going MSU’s way. A slow offensive start and a lack of answers on defense held the Spartans back from performing at the level they’re capable of. But it was the heroics of the players MSU has relied on all season that earned the team its eighth win in a row.

MSU came right out of the gate with a sense of aggression. The Spartans marched for 36 yards in five plays, 17 of which came from three rushing plays by running back Kenneth Walker III. 

Walker’s day had just begun, as he would go on to record 197 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

“I don’t know what else I can say,” said Spartan coach Mel Tucker. “This is a huge stage. The whole world’s watching. You got a chance to see what type of player he is. The recognition that he’s getting for Heisman consideration is well deserved.”

Just as MSU began to creep into red zone territory, quarterback Payton Thorne threw a deep interception to Michigan’s DJ Turner at the Wolverines’ 2-yard line. 

The Spartans nearly regained their momentum after holding Michigan to third down with five yards to go on its first possession, but Wolverine QB Cade McNamara found Andrel Anthony up the middle, who from there, broke away for a 93-yard touchdown reception.

The first quarter wouldn’t get any easier for MSU. Despite forcing the Wolverines to punt on their second offensive drive, the Spartans followed it up with another interception when Thorne’s pass was deflected and then intercepted by Michigan defensive end Mike Morris. This set the Wolverines up at the Spartans’ 30-yard line after MSU offensive tackle Jarrett Horst was called for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The Spartans defense did as they have done all season, though, and that was hold the opponent to a field goal in MSU territory. 

MSU’s offense took advantage of the stop, immediately bursting for 48 yards in just four plays. The drive was ignited by back-to-back 15-plus-yard receptions from receivers Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed. The Spartans ended the first quarter on a high note, as tight end Connor Heyward earned MSU a first down on a 6-yard reception.

MSU running back Connor Heyward runs the ball with tight end Trenton Gillison (88) in tow/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

The scoring drought for MSU was ended right away, as Walker found the end zone on a 27-yard run on the very first play of the second quarter. The Spartans pulled to within three points. 

Michigan retaliated with a big march of its own, gaining 55 yards in 10 plays. But once again, it was the resiliency of MSU’s defense that held the Wolverines to only a field goal. The 38-yard kick by Jake Moody was good, and Michigan extended its lead to six points.

Walker shined again, though, earning his second TD of the day with an 8-yard rush that put the Spartans up by a point.

From there, the game began to go right back in the Wolverines’ favor, as Michigan went on to take a 23-14 lead into halftime.

The Wolverines opened the half with yet another big drive. They fought all the way to the MSU 40-yard line, but a crucial false start penalty sent them back five yards on their attempt to go for it on fourth down with a yard to go. On the following play, Michigan faked the punt, but was stuffed by the Spartan defense just short of the first-down marker. 

MSU was unable to capitalize, as it was held to its first three-and-out of the game.

The punt by Bryce Baringer was returned by Michigan’s A.J. Henning for 19 yards, setting the Wolverines up for ideal field positioning on their own 46-yard line.

In just five plays, Michigan QB Cade McNamara found wide receiver Mike Sainristil for a 19-yard touchdown reception. After the successful extra point, Michigan led the Spartans 30-14. 

McNamara finished with 383 passing yards and two touchdown passes.

On the Spartans’ responding drive, they looked as if they would be stopped once again as they found themselves in a fourth and short situation. With the game very likely on the line, MSU went for it. Thorne connected with Reed on a deep 28-yard pass that downed the Spartans on the opponent’s 1-yard line. 

It was only right that the scoring play go to Spartans’ offensive MVP of the day, Walker. He forced his way into the end zone, scoring his third TD of the day.

MSU followed the play with a 2-point conversion that came on a connection between Thorne and wide receiver Tre Mosley.

MSU wide receiver Tre Mosley makes a catch in the Spartans’ 38-21 win over Northwestern on Sept. 3, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

The Spartans trailed by just eight points with just under four minutes to go in the third quarter.

It was almost like the cliffhanger at the end of a TV episode the way that the quarter concluded. MSU could not afford to allow the Wolverines to score again, and Spartan Stadium was left with suspense as Michigan would start the final quarter on third down with nine yards to go on its own 48-yard line.

A blitz from Spartan Justin White pressured McNamara, and the play resulted in an incomplete pass. It was MSU’s ball, and it was down by just a possession.

When it seemed as though the Spartan offense would disappoint their home crowd with another three-and-out, Thorne found Reed for an 11-yard reception that earned MSU the first down. A critical third-down conversion came once again when Thorne connected with Heyward for a 4-yard completion. 

Three plays later, Walker took the handoff and bursted for a 58-yard TD run. The Spartans converted the 2-point conversion, and the contest was tied.

The Wolverines went back to their ground game on their next possession, as running backs Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins helped lead another long Michigan drive into Spartan territory. But MSU’s defense continued to stand its ground, forcing Michigan to settle for another field goal that gave it a three-point lead.

It was MSU’s chance to take the lead back, but the Michigan defense forced a three-and-out and got the ball back with over seven minutes remaining.

In what was arguably the defining moment of the game, Wolverine QB J.J. McCarthy fumbled the ball, which found its way in the possession of Spartan defensive end Jacub Panasiuk. MSU had the ball on Michigan’s 41-yard line in the matter of five seconds. 

The offense looked as though it was about to let down the Spartan faithful for the second-straight possession, but Thorne would say otherwise.

The QB was able to find Montorie Foster for a 9-yard completion on second down and long. On the following play, an offsides penalty against the Wolverines shortened the Spartans’ third down to just three yards left to go. 

Walker then rushed for a 6-yard gain, good enough for a Spartan first down. One more short run and another Michigan penalty led MSU to the Wolverines’ 23-yard line. Then, for the fifth time of the day, Walker ran for TD on what was a 23-yard rush up the middle.

MSU took a 37-33 lead with just over five minutes remaining in the game.

One last game-declaring drive for the Wolverines was what followed, and it looked promising for the Maize and Blue after they converted on fourth down with three yards to go. But when they faced the exact situation on the Spartan 31-yard line, Michigan went for it, but McNamara’s pass would be incomplete.

MSU was forced to punt the ball one more time after an unsuccessful drive on offense, but Spartan cornerback Charles Brantley sealed the deal by picking off McNamara on just the second play of the Wolverines’ final drive.

“He’s not the biggest guy … but you can see, he comes downhill, he tries to lay the wood,” Brantley’s teammate, Reed said. “He has that edge, he has that mentality, to where he’s not afraid of anybody, no matter how big you are, how fast you are. He’s very competitive.”

The Spartans will hope to keep their streak alive next Saturday when they head on the road to face Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana.