In order for Michigan State star Kenneth Walker III to hit his big runs this season, he had to have a big, physical offensive line in front of him. And if Pitt defensive coordinator Randy Bates became familiar with anything in his decade run as Northwestern’s linebackers coach, it was going against big, physical Big Ten offensive lines.
Michigan State’s offensive line, with all five starters standing at least 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, is the prototypical Big Ten offensive line — and Bates thinks the Spartans’ game plan won’t change all that much even without Walker.
“I believe it’s a good system offense,” Bates said Tuesday. “So, I don’t see them losing a lick of running ability. Walker was a great running back. But I believe, based on what I see, they’ll still run the same offense and run it just as efficiently. And it will be a real challenge to stop them.”
However, Jay Johnson, Michigan State’s offensive coordinator, feels good about the balance between quarterback Payton Thorne and the development of the running backs behind Walker this season. But it all starts with that offensive line.
“I think the O line has really developed,” Johnson said. “Yeah, we’re going to sorely miss him and he’s phenomenal. But I feel good with who we have at that spot and the guys that are coming back. And their development all year behind Ken and with Ken has been very good.”
Jordan Simmons (255 yards on 54 carries) and Elijah Collins (87 yards on 12 carries) will get extended looks without Walker, but it’ll be up to Thorne to pick up the load for the Spartans.
Being the son of a coach, Bates said Thorne is basically already a coach on the field. He lauded Thorne’s leadership and ability to lead Michigan State’s offense efficiently.
“I also think he’s a very good athlete,” Bates said. “He runs very well, way better than you want him to. And he’s as accurate as any quarterback we’ve seen this year. So, it doesn’t surprise me a lick that they’re one of the top 10 teams in the country based on watching him play and lead their offense.”
Michigan State will have its top two receivers healthy for the same game for the first time in months, with Jayden Reed (53 catches for 946 yards and eight touchdowns) and Jaden Nailor (31 catches for 587 yards and six touchdowns). The Spartans also have a tight end who plays with a familiar intensity.
In watching Pittsburgh Steelers’ All-Pro defensive end Cameron Heyward on the Steelers’ practice field, Bates sees a similar level of impact from his younger brother, tight end Connor Heyward.
“Boy, (Heyward’s) a great athlete,” Bates said. “He can run the ball. He can catch it. He makes good moves when he does catch it. He’s a good blocker. It’s certainly not surprising, since he’s got such good bloodlines with his family, obviously.”
While Walker’s loss is a huge impact for Michigan State, Bates still expects the Pitt defense to be in for a big challenge against the Spartans’ offense.