Kenneth Walker III ran for a career-high 264 yards and a personal-best four touchdowns in an impressive debut with his new team, and Michigan State beat Northwestern 38-21 in the season opener on Friday night.
Walker finished with the highest total for Michigan State since Le’Veon Bell ran for 266 against Minnesota on Nov. 24, 2012.
His previous best was 131 yards for Wake Forest in a loss to North Carolina State last season. He never ran for more than three TDs in two years with the Demon Deacons.
Walker set the tone in this one when he broke off a 75-yard touchdown on the game’s first play from scrimmage and scored from the 3 on the next possession to make it 14-0.
“All week I was saying I can’t wait to watch Kenneth run because that’s the kind of stuff he was doing against us in practice,” safety Xavier Henderson said. “I’m like I’m waiting for him to do that against somebody else.”
The Spartans (1-0, 1-0 Big Ten) cruised from there, denying the Wildcats (0-1, 0-1) the payback they were seeking. Northwestern lost in East Lansing last season on the way to a 7-2 mark and its second West division championship in three years.
Payton Thorne, starting over Temple transfer Anthony Russo, threw for 185 yards and one touchdown. The sophomore completed 15 of 26 passes in his second career start.
Michigan State outgained Northwestern 511-400 in total yards and 326-117 in rushing. And the Spartans opened their second season under coach Mel Tucker on a winning note after going 2-5 last year.
Hunter Johnson threw for 283 yards and three touchdowns in his first start for Northwestern since 2019. With Peyton Ramsey starting, Johnson played in two games last year and did not attempt a pass. He beat out former South Carolina starter Ryan Hilinski and senior Andrew Marty for the job this season.
Trey Pugh caught two TDs. But Northwestern lost to Michigan State for the seventh time in the past eight home games.
“A lot to grow from, but more importantly a ton to learn from, a ton to teach,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “And ultimately it’s my responsibility to have us be a little bit more consistent in our execution than we were today.”
Walker III had Michigan State fans cheering when he burst 75 yards up the left side for a TD on the game’s first possession. And he struck again on the next possession, running it in from the 3 to cap a 74-yard drive after Northwestern’s Charlie Kuhbander missed a 44-yard field goal.
“It’s great,” Walker said. “But at the same time, it’s not just me.”
Michigan State added to the lead early in the second quarter, aided by Chris Bergin’s late hit on Thorne after the quarterback stepped out of bounds at the end of a 16-yard keeper. Thorne connected with Jordon Simmons for a 14-yard TD on the next play to bump the lead to 21-0.
Northwestern scored with a minute left in the half, when Johnson found an open Pugh in the end zone on fourth down at the 1. Walker added 5-yard touchdown in the third, making it 28-7.
Michigan State: The Spartans brought in 20 transfers, hoping for a quick turnaround after struggling last season. They’re off to a promising start.
Northwestern: The Wildcats lost some key players from a unit that ranked fifth in the nation and led the Big Ten last season in scoring defense, including leading tacklers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher and cornerback Greg Newsome II. And it showed.
Michigan State: The Spartans host Youngstown State on Sept. 11.
Northwestern: The Wildcats host Indiana State on Sept. 11.