EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Kenneth Walker III took a peek in the rear-view mirror on his first Michigan State carry last Friday, a 75-yard touchdown dash at Northwestern.
But the Wake Forest transfer is done looking back at a nation’s-best, 264-yard, four-touchdown rushing performance in a 38-21 win over the defending Big Ten West Division champion Wildcats.
All Walker cares about this week is what happens Saturday against Youngstown State (1-0) at Spartan Stadium, the school’s first home game with fans in more than 21 months.
“I did look back to make sure, but I didn’t have a doubt,” Walker III said of a sprint down the left sideline that gave him one more rushing score in 13 seconds than all the Spartans’ running backs had in seven games last season.
He kept smiling Wednesday, but brushed aside praise for his debut the same way he shed tacklers in 23 carries against the Wildcats.
“I don’t really pay attention to any of that,” Walker III said. “We have to focus on the next team coming up, and that’s Youngstown. Northwestern is in the past.”
His teammates will need to come back to earth, too, after feeling the love on campus all week. But they won’t forget the best debut in program history Walker averaging 11.5 yards per carry.
“I’m sorry for not hyping Kenneth up enough,” safety Xavier Henderson said. “All week I’d been saying, ‘I can’t wait to watch Kenneth run!’ That’s the kind of stuff he’d been doing against us in practice. He looked like Nelly from ‘The Longest Yard.’”
The Penguins have their own electric runner in Jaleel McLaughlin, who posted video-game numbers in two seasons at Division II Notre Dame College before transfering to Doug Phillips’ FCS program.
McLaughlin, a North Carolina state sprint champ in four events, rushed for 4,837 yards and 52 TDs in 2018-19 and was a two-time finalist for the Harlon Hill Award for small-college excellence.
In his Youngstown State debut, he ran for 242 yards and caught key passes for 46 more, actually edging Walker III by 24 yards in total offense.
“I think what they’ve done personnel-wise from last fall to now has made them even better offensively, bringing in a Walker, just like we had to bring in some players,” Phillips said. “It’s kind of similar. We had to go out and find some players like we did in Jaleel and they did in Walker.”
Both players turned in the seventh-best rushing total in school history last weekend.
TUCK AND TRESS
Second-year Spartans head coach Mel Tucker has incredible respect for this week’s opponent and a deep appreciation for YSU president Jim Tressel. Tucker played for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin and worked under Nick Saban at Michigan State, LSU and Alabama. But his national championship ring came in 2002 as defensive backs coach under Tressel at Ohio State. It was Tressel’s fifth national title, including four as head coach of the Penguins.
SECURITY EQUALS SUCCESS
In last year’s opening loss to Rutgers, the Spartans had nine possessions that didn’t end with a kick of some type: seven turnovers and two fourth-down failures. Twelve months later, Michigan State had just one series that didn’t end with an extra-point, a field goal try or a punt. That was reflected in one of Tucker’s preseason mantras: “Ball security is job security.”
The Spartans are hoping another big win can do more than match last season’s win total. They beat Youngstown State 28-6 in the 2011 opener and won 55-17 in 2013, both times advancing to the Big Ten championship game under Mark Dantonio, another trusted Tressel aide with the Penguins and Buckeyes.