50 defining moments from the 2021 Michigan State football season: No. 1

Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III celebrates his fifth touchdown against Michigan, during the fourth quarter at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.
Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III celebrates his fifth touchdown against Michigan, during the fourth quarter at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. /

Today is the last day of this series. Who else but Kenneth Walker III would provide the ultimate defining moment of the 2021 Michigan State football season?

Welcome back for the final article of this 2021 Michigan State football series. Covering the 50 defining moments of this campaign has been a lot of fun, and I am looking forward to writing this just as much as I did the first in the series, 50 days ago.

Kenneth Walker III provided the ultimate defining moment for last season, and naturally, it would be against the Spartans’ biggest rival.

Before we begin, I would like to thank Connor for editing each article. No matter what time I sent the articles in (sorry about that!), they were already edited perfectly and approved for the day of release to continue the countdown.

For those of you who missed yesterday’s article, please click here. If you would like to look at previous articles of this series, feel free to scroll through my writing profile.

No. 1: Kenneth Walker III’s go-ahead 23-yard TD run vs. Michigan

Why No. 1?

For the final defining moment, I would like to switch things up. I believe the “why” is self-explanatory. A go-ahead touchdown against your undefeated, cocky, in-state rival is one of the best feelings in the world. When I built this list and talked about my rankings with friends, this play never was lower than No. 2. It checks every box I had listed for criteria: clutch, dynamic, “wow” factor, and helped give the Spartans momentum. This play made No. 2 possible, making it the No. 1 defining moment of the 2021 Michigan State football season.

After Jacub Panasiuk recovered a J.J. McCarthy fumble, it was not an instant score for the Spartans. A holding penalty on first down put this drive in serious jeopardy. After a few modest gains, Michigan State football faced third-and-eight. Wolverine defender Mike Morris was drawn offside on a Payton Thorne hard count, cutting the yardage needed to a manageable three. Walker III came out in Wildcat and picked up five yards.

On the ensuing play, the Wolverines were flagged for illegal substitution. When watching this play, however, you can see Mike Morris wrapping his arms around Walker’s neck. Not only is Morris undisciplined pre-snap, but I guess that carries over to his play as well. At the end of the play, Walker is seen laying on his back with his hands right by his throat. Due to the penalty, Walker gets a bit longer to recover. The next play is a play-action pass, where Jayden Reed would have had an easy 10 yards if not for the athletic breakup by Daxton Hill. This sets the stage for Walker, and the entire Spartan season’s, defining moment.

Thorne lines up in shotgun with Walker directly behind him. On the snap, Thorne runs a read option and hands the ball off to Walker. Walker takes the ball straight up the middle, with his left side being stood up and David Ojabo coming free on his right. Walker accelerates quickly and Ojabo, who should have been able to stand Walker up at the line of scrimmage (before reading Thorne), is left in the dust. The line paves the way for Walker, with none of the defensive linemen laying a finger on him. Walker then cuts to the right, where a Wolverine safety again takes a horrible angle on him.

At first, I thought that this horrible dive took out the only other Wolverine able to lay a hand on Walker, but this is incorrect. Brad Hawkins, who previously starred as “Wolverine safety taking a bad angle” in moment No. 4, underestimates Walker and is left in the dust. Hawkins was meant to guard Heyward on this play and takes his job too seriously, missing the obvious signs of a run. The other option was Hawkins attacking the threat read option by Thorne. Regardless, this takes up time that when he turns to try and tackle Walker, the attempt is too slow, and Hawkins is just left jogging as K9 sprints into the end zone.

This was an excellent play, and a lot of groups deserve credit here. To begin, Jay Johnson called an excellent drive here. After the first down penalty on the Wolverines, no one would blame Johnson for going back to Walker for another play. Instead, he calls a play-action pass with Walker on a wheel. This gives Walker more time to recover from Morris’s bush-league move. Johnson then dials up Walker on this play, and the read option with a dive up the middle to avoid or neutralize the Wolverine edge threats was perfect. Walker had success up the middle almost all day, and this play was no different.

The next party to get a shoutout is the Spartan offensive line. The line paves the way for Walker here. While the left did get stood up in their one-on-one matchups, if this play went to Walker, it would be between the center and right guard. As a result, no Wolverine got through to disrupt the play. Kevin Jarvis, Matt Allen, and a pulling AJ Arcuri all seal their defenders, with Arcuri helping Allen push his defender into the linebacker reading the play. With the threat of Payton Thorne’s legs, Ojabo had to read the quarterback for a split second and was left unblocked, and that was all that was needed for Walker to flash through the hole.

Payton Thorne deserves a shoutout here as well, as he does just enough on the play to freeze Ojabo and let the play develop before Walker tears for the end zone. Thorne does not attempt to be the hero on this play and gain a first down, he makes the smart, correct read and it gives the Spartans a go-ahead touchdown.

Walker, obviously, deserves the rest of the credit. The offensive blocking scheme left Walker with only a man or two to beat. He easily diagnosed a horrible safety angle and was able to get around the safety while keeping most of his speed and all his balance. Then, the end zone was his. Walker III scored all five Michigan State touchdowns this game and this touchdown gave them a lead that they would never relinquish.

Kenneth Walker III provided an amazing season for the Spartans. Not only was he practically a guaranteed 100 yards and a touchdown every game he played in, but he was also always down-to-earth. Mel Tucker told stories of how Walker thanked the coach for giving K9 a chance. Walker shied away from the spotlight, and always deflected blame. He was an excellent football player but also a great teammate. Walker put the spotlight on MSU and gave them an amazing year, and now it is time for 2022 to begin and the new members of the Michigan State football team to pick up where Walker left off.

Listening to the Gus Johnson call is bittersweet. Johnson mentions New York as if it is an assured statement that Walker will be at the Heisman ceremony, but we now know that is not the case. With his injury against Ohio State and lack of a Big Ten title, Walker was left off the invite list. He settled quite well, garnering the Doak Walker award as well as the Walter Camp Award.

Walker was a superstar that did not act larger than life, and perhaps that is why he did not get his “New York” moment. I do wonder that if Walker was flashy like Baker Mayfield or Johnny Manziel, could K9 have been on that stage?

Despite only having one year of Walker, it feels weird to be on the verge of next season and not have him with the rest of the team. I guess this is part of being spoiled in the mid-2010s, with Shilique Calhoun, Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford, and Darqueze Dennard all staying for their senior years. I cannot complain for a second about having Walker gone after this year, however, as he provided the best season of Spartan football that I got to attend and watch live.

Statistically, Kenneth Walker III had a career day against the Wolverines, with this being his fifth touchdown (the others being moment Nos. 4, 21, 24, and 28). It also added to his total that would end up giving the running back over 200 total yards against the Wolverines. As I have mentioned in previous articles on Walker’s day against Michigan, this was a record for most rushing touchdowns against the Wolverines by a single player, ever. Additionally, his touchdown total in this game was good enough for second place all-time in single-game rushing touchdowns for a Michigan State football player.

Thank you for reading this series. Whether this is the first article you have read or the 50th, thank you. This started as a fun “maybe this should be a series” text to CJ, but I never imagined that I would stick to this and put out each article. Here I am, 50 days later with each article complete. I guess that really shows that Spartans Will. Go Green!

Tomorrow, the 2022 Michigan State football season kicks off. There are no more defining moments, we have a season to watch now.

dark. Next. Game-by-game predictions for MSU football