Major Heisman Trophy Implications On the Line For C.J. Stroud, Kenneth Walker in Ohio State vs. Michigan State

By Griffin Strom on November 17, 2021 at 8:35 am
C.J. Stroud & Kenneth Walker
Walker photo: Nick King/Lansing State Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK

The winner of Saturday’s Ohio State-Michigan State matchup could go a long way in determining who wins this season’s Heisman Trophy.

At minimum, the game’s results will greatly influence the race for college football’s most prestigious individual award, even if a number of variables – including those completely out of the hands of the two candidates in question – could render that original premise untrue. Inarguable, however, is that the regular season’s penultimate week features just one contest in which two of the foremost Heisman frontrunners will compete head-to-head.

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said Tuesday that the Buckeyes have “everything on the line” against Michigan State, and in this case, that statement applies to team goals and individual accolades.

“This is what it’s all about; being in November, having (ESPN’s College) GameDay in town, top-10 matchup,” Day said. “I mean, this is why you come to Ohio State.”

Only three college football players in the country – Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young and Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III – have better than 5/1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy in most online sportsbooks entering this weekend.

Two of them will share the same field in Columbus this weekend as Stroud and Walker each hope to power their teams one step closer to the Big Ten Championship Game and a College Football Playoff berth. A standout performance from either one in a winning effort for his team is likely to launch him ahead of the pack as far as Heisman consideration is concerned.

For Stroud, that would mean distancing himself at the top of the heap in the eyes of many, as the redshirt freshman Buckeye overtook Young as the Heisman favorite per several sportsbooks after this past weekend’s win over Purdue. 

“That don’t surprise me,” Buckeye wideout Garrett Wilson said Tuesday. “Coming into the year I thought it would be the kid from Oklahoma (Spencer Rattler) or our dude. So it don’t surprise me at all. I’ve seen him sling it for a year-and-a-half now, two years, and he’s something really special.” 

Other oddsmakers, such as DraftKings, still have the Crimson Tide passer as a slight favorite over Stroud to take home the trophy. DraftKings has Young's odds at +180, with Stroud coming in at +200.

In most cases, Walker is the clear second runner-up as of now, but he’ll have his chance to shake up that order when he collides with Ohio State’s 14th-ranked run defense this weekend.

The nation’s leading rusher has not faced a run defense ranked any higher than 27th nationally (Michigan) so far this season. When Walker faced off with the Wolverines, he torched them for 197 yards and five touchdowns on 23 carries.

“He does have great patience, running the ball just about better than anybody in the country,” Day said. “Their line does a good job, they have a very good offense and he’s a big part of it. Makes a lot of guys miss in the hole, and so you’re gonna need to do a great job up front in defeating blocks, and then it’s gonna take more than one guy to take him down. But his vision and his patience and his ability to make a guy miss in the hole are probably some of the things he does best.”

Meanwhile, Ohio State has not seen an opposing running back of Walker’s caliber since perhaps the first two weeks of the season, when the Buckeyes took on Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim and Oregon’s C.J. Verdell. Neither of those matchups went particularly well for the scarlet and gray, as Ohio State gave up a combined 325 rushing yards and four scores to Ibrahim and Verdell on the ground.

“That was a long time ago,” Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison said Tuesday. “I feel like we’re a different defense than we were then.”

Since then, the Buckeyes have been elite against the run. In the month of October, Ohio State led the entire Football Bowl Subdivision in average rushing yards allowed, holding opponents to just 58.5 per game.

Walker averaged nearly three times as many yards in the month of October, in which he had a 126-yard, three-touchdown game against Western Kentucky, a 233-yard performance against Rutgers and the aforementioned showing in the Michigan game. In two games since the start of November, Walker’s averaging almost 170 yards from scrimmage per game.

The Buckeyes haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Verdell, but Walker’s had seven such performances this season, including two 200-yard games. Ohio State has given up just three rushing touchdowns since its Week 2 loss, but Walker is tied for the most in the country with 17 this season.

“He’s a legit running back,” Harrison said. “He’s explosive, he’s a big guy, he can run through tackles. So that’s something we just got to key in this week on and make sure our run fits and our fundamentals are right.”

On paper, there appears to be less resistance facing Stroud’s chances at a monster outing against the Spartans. Michigan State ranks dead last in the FBS in pass defense; five opponents have thrown for at least 350 yards against Mel Tucker and company this season. Three teams have passed for at least 400 yards against the Spartans, and Purdue had 536 in its upset win against Michigan State.

Stroud is fresh off what might have been the best performance of his career so far. The first-year starter completed a season-high 82 percent of his passes, going 31-for-38, and finished with 361 yards and five touchdowns through the air in the Buckeyes’ 59-31 win over Purdue.

“I asked him before the game, I said, ‘Can a Cali kid throw the ball in 40-degree weather with 10-mile-an-hour winds?’ He said, ‘Yeah, no problem Coach.’ He just shrugged it right off,” Day said. “It’s always good to see. You never know until you see it, but there’ll be worse weather coming.”

Stroud has a couple other advantages as well when it comes to the Heisman race. One is that the Buckeyes are 19-point favorites to beat Michigan State, even though both teams are ranked in the CFP committee’s top seven. Stroud will also have another massive platform to display his potential Heisman worthiness next week against sixth-ranked Michigan in The Game, which has an extra year of anticipation behind it after last season’s COVID-19 cancellation.

Stroud also plays the position that wins the award far more often than not, as quarterbacks have taken home the honor on 17 occasions since 2000. Running backs have claimed just three Heisman trophies in that same span, and no running back has won it since Derrick Henry in 2015.

Even after a four-touchdown game in his own right against Purdue, Wilson said Stroud should be credited for the Buckeyes’ success in the pass attack when it comes to the Heisman race.

“It’s gotta be the QB,” Wilson said. “He’s making checks, handing it off, slinging it to me when I’m open, not slinging it to me when I’m not open. So he’s making me look good. If it’s gonna be me, it’s gotta be C.J. I don’t belong up there. That’s the man C.J., for sure.”

Young is still capable of spoiling any plans that Stroud or Walker have of winning the award, no matter what happens between the Buckeyes and Spartans on Saturday. Alabama has forthcoming games with Arkansas and Iron Bowl rival Auburn remaining on its regular season slate, but it’s the inevitable matchup with national No. 1 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game that could give Young the ultimate stage to snatch the Heisman.

But if the Buckeyes can close out their own conference schedule in impressive fashion, including a show of superiority over Walker and company on Saturday, Stroud will certainly have a compelling case for the award.

“If we finish the way we expect to, the way we prepare to, he’ll be right where he wants to be at the end of the season as far as those Heisman odds, Heisman race,” Wilson said.

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