EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State gave the ball to its best player on the first play Saturday night. And Nebraska was ready.
Kenneth Walker took the football to the right on a zone run and had to take the long way around his own blocker as defensive lineman Damion Daniels pushed toward him. Inside linebacker Luke Reimer wrapped him up shortly thereafter for a 3-yard loss.
The nation’s most productive running back early in the season — averaging more than 164 rushing yards per game — didn’t find open spaces so easily against the Huskers. He collected 12 yards on eight carries in the first quarter. Then 25 on four totes in the second. He saw four second-half attempts totaling 2 yards. His longest sequence of regulation was an 11-yard sprint before halftime that helped set up a 26-yard field goal.
“Nothing special — we just play our defense,” defensive lineman Ben Stille said. “Doesn’t matter who the running back is. If everybody fits their gap, it doesn’t matter who the running back is.”
Alas, Walker’s best run came in the game’s biggest moment. With MSU needing points of any kind to win in overtime, he started left and bounced back right for 23 yards to set up the winning chip-shot field goal.
Walker rushed for 61 yards on 19 tries in all, marking the sixth straight game the Blackshirts have denied their opponent a 100-yard rusher. Defensive busts were scarce and tackling was generally sound as NU never allowed the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Wake Forest transfer much space in which to operate.
After feasting on cutback lanes in recent weeks that helped him average 8.65 yards per carry, such secondary options didn’t emerge until the end against NU’s front seven that rotated linemen, welcomed back defensive lineman Casey Rogers and got active nights from inside linebackers Reimer (11 tackles) and Nick Henrich (nine).
Michigan State ran for 71 yards overall, with backup running back Jordon Simmons (three for 13), Jayden Reed (one for 2) and quarterback Payton Thorne (seven for minus-5) accounting for the rest.
The Spartans appeared to renew their focus on the ground game after intermission by slowing the tempo and giving to Walker three straight carries in a tie game. After going for gains of 3 and 6, NU defenders swarmed him for a 1-yard loss to force a punt. Another Daniels push helped buy time for D-lineman Ty Robinson and linebacker Garrett Nelson to wrap him up behind the line.
The front seven grew stronger from there, pulling Walker down for a 6-yard loss on second-and-5 early in the fourth quarter to help force a third straight MSU three-and-out as the Blackshirts dominated second-half ball possession.
Nebraska has allowed a 100-yard rusher 13 times in 37 games under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. It hasn’t given up more than 116 yards to an individual since Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor rolled up 221 in 2019.
No back has gone for more than 85 yards against NU this fall.
Holding down Walker is especially encouraging for a Nebraska defense with plenty of Big Ten challenges still ahead.
Michigan’s Blake Corum entered the weekend third nationally averaging 135 yards rushing per game. Wisconsin’s Chez Mellusi (132) was seventh, Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson (115) 13th and Minnesota’s Trey Potts (111) 16th. Iowa’s Tyler Goodson (102) makes it six Big Ten backs averaging above the century mark.
Said Henrich: “We gotta keep having disciplined eyes so (explosive) plays don’t happen.”