For football players, the dream—at least on the college level—is to have a main role for a team with national title and conference aspirations. While a College Football Playoff berth is out of the question for Michigan State, and a Big Ten East crown is very much a near-zero possibility, they have assembled a top-25 team. Injuries have plagued this team all season, but on the defensive side of the ball, a former walk-on has become one of the standouts.
Defensive end Kenny Willekes is that standout, and he’s coming off a big weekend. Against Maryland, he had seven tackles, with 2.5 of them being tackles-for loss, and a pair of sacks. For the season, those seven tackles versus the Terrapins nearly matched his season-high total. A few weeks back against Michigan, Willekes recorded nine tackles, which is pretty good considering a) the weather wasn’t cooperating for part of the game and b) that output happened against one of the best teams in the country—and, arguably, the best team in the Big Ten.
He’s come a long way since walking onto the program in 2015. Now in his junior season, the DE cracked the All-Big Ten midseason team in the eyes of Pro Football Focus. On a Spartan defense that has been known to be stingy, he leads in tackles-for-loss (13.5) and sacks (7.5) after their first nine games. Amongst defenders in the Big Ten, both those totals are within the top-two. With Ohio State, Nebraska and Rutgers remaining on the regular season schedule, I’d wager that Willekes will still be the top (if not the top) defensive lineman on MSU.
Here’s one of his sacks against Maryland.
Sacks and tackles-for-loss are just some of the things Willekes could do against Ohio State this weekend. However, his biggest advantage is his ability to get quarterback hits. It’s no wonder that PFF had him in their midseason All-Big Ten squad; PFF has tallied the amount of times Willekes has made contact with the QB, and it’s an FBS-leading 15 times. This could spell big trouble to the Buckeyes, as in the games where the pass hasn’t been as sharp as it could be, it was because Dwayne Haskins was taking some serious pressure. Penn State’s defense caused all sorts of issues for the first half; Purdue’s defense, while giving up 470 yards in the air, rushed Haskins on some of his throws—leading to misconnections.
If the offensive line doesn’t hold the fort down, Willekes is going to find himself in the backfield more often than not. Ohio State showed improvements after the bye week, but Haskins still was hit, and even fumbled once on the afternoon. Turnovers nearly doomed OSU against Nebraska, they can’t afford to have a repeat effort against MSU, who have a notable defender on the line with Willekes, and a reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week in linebacker Joe Bachie. Both those Spartans have to be accounted for.
But if I had to choose one guy to really key-in on, it’d be Willekes. Of those 7.5 sacks, six of them have been unassisted. Meaning, that if he gets the QB, who doesn’t really need any help bringing them down to the ground. He has the same amount of solo sacks as Ohio State’s Dre’Mont Jones, so it’s safe to make the comparison that Willekes is their version of Jones. That’s a good and bad thing, because Jones is very good defensive tackle for the Buckeyes, and they’ll have to go up against his equivalent at noon Saturday.
Getting a balanced offensive attack (the rush and pass) will be an objective for Urban Meyer and his squad. You can only make that possible if that line can hold it together. Willekes will pose a problem, and I’d wager that Bachie will be a problem, too, especially if the Buckeyes force rushing plays and run right into the LB. Making Ohio State one-dimensional was how Purdue scored their massive upset. If Sparty does the same—limiting the Buckeye rush—then all bets are off at what happens. On Saturday, the weather forecasts indicate windy conditions (roughly 15 mph) in East Lansing. That could play a factor in deep passes, and may even shuffle around the Buckeye play calling efforts.
Either way, Kenny Willekes will be out there trying to stop Ohio State’s offense, and derail the Buckeyes’ chances at a national title, conference crown and Rose Bowl appearance before the regular season finale with Michigan.