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Indiana front seven bulks up in anticipation of Kenneth Walker III, Spartans

Weston Kramer drinks a 2,000-calorie protein shake each night. 

But with the nation’s top rusher Kenneth Walker III headed to Bloomington, Kramer bulked up a bit extra ahead of Saturday’s matchup.

“Last night I put a piece of cake in it, too,” Kramer said.

Indiana’s defense ranks eighth in the Big Ten with 126.8 rushing yards allowed per game, but need a stout performance from the front seven to slow down Walker III. The Spartans’ tailback leads the country with 913 rushing yards — 122 more than second place — and gains over seven yards per carry.

Indiana defensive coordinator Charlton Warren said tremendous vision and patience separate Walker III from the rest of the pack. Walker III often sets up eight yards behind the line of scrimmage in Michigan State’s pistol set, inches closer as he lets the offensive line set up holes, then makes an explosive cut while accelerating at full speed. 

“He can go from zero to 100 in a blink of an eye,” Warren said. 

Walker III combines speed to bounce runs outside, power to run through defenders and quickness to spin out of tackles. These qualities make him an elite running back in Warren’s eyes. 

Cam Jones, a team captain and linebacker for Indiana’s defense, is used to seeing this talent from Walker. Jones attended Saint Benedict at Auburndale High School, which is a 15-minute drive from Walker’s alma mater in Arlington, Tennessee. 

Jones graduated a year before Walker III, but has some insight into how he plays. Talking with friends from his hometown, Jones was told the only way to bring Walker III down is by going for his legs.

“He’s got some big legs,” Jones said. “Chop him down.”

Defensive lineman Sio Nofoagatoto’a is in his third season at Indiana and said Walker III has the feel of a physical Big Ten running back. Walker III refuses to go down on first contact and if the defense isn’t ready to gang tackle, he makes them pay. 

Walker III not only leads the nation in rushing yards, but his 315 consecutive carries without a fumble is the longest streak in college football. Michigan State has just seven turnovers this season, contributing to a 6-0 start. 

Indiana was plus eight in the turnover margin in 2020 — a key reason for its 6-2 season — but this margin sits even through five games in 2021. Nofoagatoto’a said Indiana’s defense has been emphasizing takeaways in practice this week, knowing that Michigan State prides itself on ball security. 

Nofoagatoto'a and his teammates watched Michigan State’s 31-13 win at Rutgers and said Walker III and the Spartans present a challenge the Hoosiers are ready to accept. 

Warren used the bye week to not only prepare for Walker III and the Spartans, but to evaluate Indiana’s run defense as a whole. Warren said the Hoosiers’ biggest issue in stopping the run has been a tendency to give up explosive plays.

Iowa’s Tyler Goodson turned the corner for a 56-yard touchdown on the opening drive of Indiana’s season, which sticks out to Warren. In Indiana’s most recent game at Penn State, Keyvone Lee broke off a run for 44 yards while quarterback Sean Clifford gained 58 yards on the ground in 10 attempts. Warren calls these runs catastrophic. 

For Nofoagatoto’a, the bye week was a chance to mentally and physically reset after an unexpected 2-3 start. Nofoagatoto'a said even in losses, Indiana has benefitted from playing top competition that has prepared the team for the rest of the season.

“The season’s not going the way we thought it would be,” Nofoagatoto’a said. “But how we react and how we come off this bye week will be a big tell for how the rest of the season will look.”

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