The Buckeyes have played a couple of elite running backs this season, but both of them came very early in the year. Ohio State began the season against Mo Ibrahim and Minnesota, and the very next game faced off against CJ Verdell and the Oregon Ducks. Unfortunately, since that time both players have gone down with season-ending injuries, but in their place a new name has surged to the top of the list as the very best running back in all of college football. That man comes to Columbus this weekend dressed in Spartan green.
The man in question, of course, is none other than Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III. However, unlike both Ibrahim and Verdell, who both came into this season with a ton of hype, Walker flew under the radar on an MSU team that wasn’t expected to be all that good. Seemingly out of nowhere, Walker has been a massive reason why the Spartans have played their way up to the No. 7 team in the country with hopes of both a Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff berth, and has played his way to the forefront of the Heisman Trophy conversation.
From the jump, not much was expected of Walker in his collegiate career. He wasn’t exactly what you would call a blue-chip recruit by any means. According to the 247Sports Composite, the Tennessee native was the No. 2,164 player in the 2019 class, coming in as the No. 143 RB and the 57th-best player from his home state. Holding just nine scholarship offers out of high school, Walker committed to Wake Forest, where he was the program’s lowest-rated recruit of the 21 enrollees in the cycle.
Despite his low rating, Walker did actually play a pretty big part in the Deacons’ offense as a freshman in 2019. He finished second among running backs on the team in both carries and yards in year one, finishing with 579 yards on 98 carries with four touchdowns. He played second-fiddle to then-junior Christian Beal in 2020, but despite playing in only seven games and taking less carries than Beal that year, Walker finished with a whopping 13 touchdowns — the most on the team by far, and the same amount of TDs thrown by QB Sam Hartman. Walker was clearly the top back on the team, but with Beal the upperclassman returning in 2021, the 5-foot-10 wrecking ball decided to take his talents to East Lansing.
Walker joined a Michigan State running back room that returned 2020 starter Jordon Simmons and also added Auburn transfer Harold Joiner. However, it was clear from the jump that Walker was far and away the most talented ballcarrier of the bunch. Since earning the starting job in camp, he hasn’t looked back.
As things currently stand, Walker leads all of FBS with his 1,473 rushing yards on the year — over 100 yards more than the next-best player, Sean Tucker at Syracuse. His 17 rushing touchdowns also tie him for first place in the country with BYU’s Tyler Allgeier and Marshall’s Rasheen Ali. Averaging an impressive 6.5 yards per carry this season, Walker has already had seven games with over 100 rushing yards, and has twice eclipsed the 200-yard mark. His best game of the campaign came in his team’s biggest game, a 37-33 comeback win over Michigan wherein Walker ran for 197 yards and five touchdowns, including the game-winner.
Ohio State has been much better this season against the run than against the pass, with the Buckeyes’ rushing defense ranking 13th in the country as they’ve allowed just 105.9 yards per game on the ground. However, as previously mentioned, this team hasn’t seen a running back this season quite like Walker, and they haven’t even played what I would consider an above-average RB since that Week 2 loss to Oregon, when Verdell had 161 yards and two TDs in the Ducks’ upset in Columbus. For really the last five weeks, Ohio State hasn’t played a single team with even a competent rushing attack, so this will be a massive change of pace for a defense that has looked vulnerable more often than not.
This is going to be a really important game for Ohio State’s front seven. The defensive line has shown flashes of what they are capable of this season, but have disappeared in a few games and cannot afford to do so against Walker and the Michigan State rushing attack. The linebackers have not exactly impressed this year outside of Steele Chambers, so someone else is really going to have to step up in this game if they want to keep Walker out of the end zone each and every drive. It would also be nice if the Buckeyes would play a safety that has somewhat of an idea of what is going on, unlike what they have had out there since Josh Proctor went down with a season-ending injury.
Michigan State is likely going to put up some points in this game, and Kenneth Walker III is going to be a big reason why. For the Spartans to win this one, they will want to keep Ohio State’s offense off the field as much as possible, and they can do that by running the football and keeping the clock moving. We are going to see a heavy dose of Walker on Saturday, and we will learn a lot about whether the Buckeye defense has actually improved against the run since getting gashed by Verdell earlier in the year, or if all of this has just been smoke and mirrors against a litany of teams that had no real run game to speak of.
Someone is going to come out of this game as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, with CJ Stroud and Walker competing head-to-head already ranking in the top three among betting favorites. Stroud will continue his march should Ohio State get the job done, but if Walker leads Michigan State to an upset in the Horseshoe, you will see a new name atop the Heisman standings.