Indiana's Defense Facing Huge Challenge With  Michigan State Running Back Kenneth Walker

After turning heads and breaking off long runs in the first six weeks of the season, Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III is suddenly in the Heisman Trophy conversation. He comes to Bloomington on Saturday, and Indiana's players and coaches know they have a huge challenge on their hands.
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Kenneth Walker III showed up at Michigan State earlier this year vowing to make an immediate impact after transferring from Wake Forest. 

He's been true to his promise, and then some.

Through six games, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior from Arlington, Tenn., has rushed for a national-best 913 yards. Those six games? All wins for the Spartans, who were just 2-5 a year ago and had one of the worst offenses in America.

Throw all that in the trash, though, because Walker is a huge threat and the Spartans, now ranked No. 10 in the country, are a team on the rise. They're also the next great challenge for Indiana, which is playing its fourth top-10 team in six games.

And Walker has their undivided attention coming off their bye week. Indiana coach Tom Allen was succinct in his response to what has him most concerned about Michigan State's running game.

"Number nine," Allen said of Walker, without hesitation. "He's really good. He has great balance, great vision and he makes guys miss. He's patient, strong, tough and he runs hard. Right now, he's the leading rusher in the Big Ten, tops in the country. He's very good."

Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III breaks free against Western Kentucky on Oct. 2. He currently leads the nation in rushing with 913 yards. (USA TODAY Sports)

Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III breaks free against Western Kentucky on Oct. 2. He currently leads the nation in rushing with 913 yards. (USA TODAY Sports)

Michigan State is averaging 486 yards of total offense so far this year, nearly a 50 percent improvement over that dismal 2020 season. A year ago, they gained only 640 yards as a team in 239 carries, a 2.0 average over seven games. Against Indiana, they had just 60 rushing yards all day in a 24-0 Hoosiers shutout in East Lansing.

Night and day improvement? Pretty much. Walker has transformed their running game, and that's opened up the passing game for new quarterback Payton Thorne, a sophomore from Naperville, Ill. who's having a terrific year himself.

"You've got to gang tackle him, but then the challenge with that is, they play-action off all that," Allen said.

Walker, who has joined the Heisman Trophy conversation after his big start, has impressed the Hoosiers on film. 

"He's good in space," said Indiana senior linebacker Cam Jones, who grew up right down the road from Walker in west Tennessee. "He's good in the hole. We've really got to tackle and wrap him up.

"Funny story, he's actually from where I'm from. I kind of know about him. I know how he plays and where he comes from and stuff like that, so it's going to be a good matchup. I just can't wait to get out there on the field and go against a good back like him."

Walker played at Arlington High School exactly 15 minutes down the road from St. Benedict at Auburndale High School in Memphis.

To say that Walker's impact has been immediate is a massive understatement. On the first play of the game against Northwestern in the season opener, he ran for 75 yards and a touchdown. 

He finished the night with 264 yards and four touchdowns, and he's also rushed for 172 yards against Miami, 126 against Western Kentucky and 232 against Rutgers. He broke free for a 94-yard touchdown run in the 31-13 win at Rutgers last weekend

Indiana defensive line coach Kevin Peoples said his group prepares hard for everyone, but his guys also aren't naive to Walker's successful first half of the season, and it's going to take the whole village to stop him.

"All 11 guys have got to swarm to the football, so I think the preparation is the same, but we're not foolish enough to be unaware of his stats and where he's at statistically in the country," People said.  "We know it's a challenge, so I think there's a little more added motivation."

At Wake Forest, Walker rushed for exactly 579 yards in each of his first two seasons with the Demon Deacons, so he's blown right past that total already.

His 913 yards are the best in the country by a wide margin. (Sean Tucker of Syracuse is second with 793 yards.) He is the only player in the nation to rank among the top 10 in rushing touchdowns (he's fourth with 9 scores), total touchdowns (fifth with 10), all-purpose yards (sixth with 157.2 yards per game) and yards per carry (10th with 7.1 yards per carry).

Peoples said the work will start up front. Junior defensive tackle Sio Nofoagatoto'a lives up front and is eager to dominate Michigan State's big and talented offensive line.

"There's a lot of hype around him," Nofoagatoto'a said. "It's also a big challenge if we feel like we can make them one dimensional and stop their go-to, the bread and butter of the offense."

"I feel like we can put ourselves in a position to win, so we're just ready as a D-line and as a defense to be sound gap wise and just make plays and be there for our team."

Indiana has been mostly good against the run this year, outside of a few plays here and there in its 2-3 start to the season. 

"It's definitely going to take a lot from our front seven to fill the gaps and set edges, and force them to throw the ball,'' Indiana linebacker Micah McFadden said during Tuesday night's Mike & Micah podcast on HoosiersNow.com. "They have a great running back and a great scheme, and it's on us to stop it. 

"We've done pretty well overall stopping the run, and we need to continue that this week. It's definitely going to take all of us to fit up this running back and make sure they don't get any explosive (plays).''

  • MICAH McFADDEN PODCAST: Indiana linebacker talks about the benefits of having a bye week and a home game back-to-back, and the challenges that lie ahead Saturday when unbeaten Michigan State comes to Bloomington. Watch the full podcast here. CLICK HERE
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  • TOM BREW COLUMN: In football, sometimes it's more who you play than how you play. Tom Allen doesn't like losing, but how the Hoosiers have lost has concerned him. Starting the second half off with Michigan State gives the Hoosiers an opportunity to turn their season around quickly. CLICK HERE
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