The 2021 Michigan football season was magical.
Mel Tucker, in his second year as MSU head coach, led the Spartans from a 2-5 record to a remarkable 11-2 season. Vegas had the total winline set at about four and a half wins, and all it took was five games before Michigan State conceded. It was an astronomical leap that no one saw coming — at least for a program dubbed at the start of a rebuild.
Tucker was crowned with a market-impacting 10-year, $95 million contract in November and led MSU to a Peach Bowl victory over Pittsburgh a month later. He also caused a stir nationwide in June with relentless recruiting efforts during the period of official visits, flashing on social media with photoshoots of luxury vehicles on the Spartan Stadium lawn and barbecues at the Tucker household.
Much of the Spartans’ success is credited to running back Kenneth Walker III, and rightly so. He put on one of the most amazing single seasons in Michigan state history and will forever be anchored as an MSU great.
As for that list, Walker alone could easily pinpoint each and every one of the five biggest moments of the 2021 season. Maybe we’ll save that for a later date. However, this is a list that reflects the entire team and is not easily narrowed down to just five.
But it wouldn’t be right to start without Walker’s outstanding performance in his very first game as a Spartan:
Disclaimer: These moments are simply arranged in chronological order, not 1-5.
Kenneth Walker III makes his name known – Week 1 in the Northwest
There was no real telling how good Michigan State would be in 2021 with a slew of new faces on the list. Rather than opening with a non-conference opponent, MSU faced a seemingly tough first opponent who traveled to Northwestern to take on the defending Big Ten West champions.
If you remember, all the attention was on the quarterback position. There was no telling who the Spartans’ starting quarterback would be until warm-up practice began at Ryan Field.
After then-redshirt student Payton Thorne won the job, Michigan State earned the opening start for a touchback and took over with its own 25.
Thorne took the snap of the gun formation, pivoted right to hand Walker, who charged toward the line of scrimmage and cut back to the left. Connor Heyward, who played close in his first game after moving from running back in the offseason, provided a key block to seal the edge. Wide receiver Jayden Reed threw a block on the outside to a Northwestern linebacker while Walker jukered a Northwestern safety to turn the corner.
Then Walker turned on the Jets and hit the 75-yard touchdown streak on the first play of the season.
It was the beginning of Walker’s dominance, both throughout the season and in this particular game. Walker found the endzone three more times that night while rushing for 264 yards on 23 carries. That was the seventh most rushing yards in a single game by a Spartan and most ever in a Michigan State debut.
Jayden Reed Punt Return Touchdown – Week 4 vs. Nebraska
For the first time in Michigan State’s early season, the offense was on a hiatus. After scoring 38, 42 and 38 points in the prior weeks, MSU was down to just 13 points by the end of the fourth quarter and seven behind Nebraska.
Walker was bottled and averaging a modest 3.2 yards per carry. Thorne wasn’t spectacular either, finishing 14 of 23 for 185 yards for a touchdown and an interception.
MSU’s defense forced a three-and-out on a key tackle by then-redshirt junior defense tackle Jacob Slade. With a fourth and three of his own 28 four minutes to go, Nebraska opted to hit the ball towards Michigan State’s buoyed offense.
Support student media!
Please consider making a donation to The State News and help fund the future of journalism.
Special teams coordinator Ross Els sent down two returners instead of just one, Reed and fellow wide receiver Jalen Nailor, and the Cornhuskers didn’t sniff the tricks.
Nebraska’s punt went short and left, giving Reed steam while everyone else on the field drifted to the right, where Nailor played his bluff. By the time Nebraska’s special teams realized it had been placed in a blender, it was too late. Reed was in midfield, missed a man and shot down the sideline for the punt return touchdown.
Michigan State’s prayers had been answered and an extension of their unbeaten season was on the cards again.
The game went into overtime where Nebraska was first on offense. Then-junior cornerback Chester Kimbrough grabbed an interception in third and set up a Matt Coghlin walk-off field goal from 21 yards.
Jalen Nailor Goes Nuclear – Week 6 at Rutgers
Rutgers got first blood from Tucker at Michigan State in 2020, forcing seven turnovers for a 38-27 win.
Nailor came off his first 100-yard jaunt of the season, but it wasn’t nearly as impressive as his record day at Rutgers. It was an absolute fireworks display with three touchdown receptions for 63 yards. In the first half alone, Nailor had 208 receiving yards.
Rutgers turned his defensive attention to stopping Nailor in the second half, limiting him to just one catch for 13 yards. Still, it was the fourth most yards in a single game in MSU history and most yards per reception (44.2) in a game by a Big Ten player since 2000.
As attention turned to Nailor in the second half, Walker broke up a 94-yard touchdown run that was capped off with a high-five between Walker and Nailor before entering the end zone. Not only was it a celebration of the 6-0 record, it was another dynamite performance from the Spartans’ offense.
Kenneth Walker III’s signature performance – Week 9 vs Michigan
If you’re a Michigan State fan, you probably remember this game like it was yesterday, so this will be short.
Michigan and Michigan State faced off in East Lansing as a battle between two undefeated top-10 teams in one of the most anticipated games of the entire college football season. The Wolverines jumped out to two double-digit leads, but MSU continued to fight on Walker’s back.
With a total of 197 rushing yards and five touchdowns, he delivered his parade performance on the big stage. It was an amazing performance from Walker, whose fifth touchdown of the game late in the fourth quarter was the game winner.
Fox Sports’ Gus Johnson’s call for the piece was pretty cool too.
MSU storms back from a double-digit deficit to 11 wins – Peach Bowl vs. Pittsburgh
Walker dropped out, as did Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett — one of five Heisman Trophy finalists.
Pickett’s backup, Nick Patti, led the Panthers to a goal early in the game but did not return to the game after injuring himself jumping after the pylon. That left Pitt on his third-string quarterback, Davis Beville.
Pittsburgh didn’t flinch, going to an 11-point lead early in the third when a Thorne fumble was scooped for a 26-yard defensive touchdown. The Panthers didn’t score the rest of the way, but MSU was still five minutes behind, with less than three minutes to play.
Thorne floated a 50-50 ball from 22 yards in Reed’s direction, which came down with the catch to give the Spartans a three-point lead.
Then the Pittsburgh offense found its legs for the first time in the second half, driving toward the MSU 26 with less than a minute left, threatening to tie or take the lead. Then-redshirt linebacker Cal Haladay lined up between tackles on the line of scrimmage and ducked back for cover. Beville threw the ball straight to gloveless Haladay, who turned the sideline for a 78-yard pick-six to freeze the game.