Can Payton Thorne keep pace with CJ Stroud and Ohio State?
It’s unfair to attempt a traditional tale of the tape between Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud and any other Big Ten signal caller. Stroud has so many weapons around him that failure is nearly impossible for him.
Receivers Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba are all worthy of Biletnikoff Award consideration even if Olave is the only one of the trio who made the final 10 as a Biletnikoff semifinalist. Running back TreVeyon Henderson can score from anywhere on the field, so ignoring Ohio State’s run capabilities is extremely perilous.
The better question to ask of an opposing QB facing this year’s Buckeyes is not whether he can outplay Stroud, but if can he do enough to keep up.
Penn State’s Sean Clifford is the only Big Ten quarterback to come close this season, completing 67% of his passes and throwing for 361 yards. But he also threw a critical interception, and one mistake is all the Buckeyes need to make you pay. Clifford’s showing wasn’t enough in a 33-24 loss.
Could Michigan State’s Payton Thorne be the guy capable of handing Ryan Day his first-ever loss against a Big Ten opponent?
In all likelihood, he’ll need to be.
Kenneth Walker III may be a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, but Ohio State has put the clamps on opposing running backs since its Week 2 loss to Oregon. Only 2 teams have surpassed 100 rushing yards against the Bucks since that game — Rutgers and Nebraska. The bulk of those rushing yards came from quarterbacks Noah Vedral and Adrian Martinez.
The best hope of beating the Buckeyes is through the air.
Thorne has yet to face this environment
Perhaps the biggest concern for Michigan State is the fact Thorne has never played in a game with these stakes in a hostile environment.
Thorne did start in the season finale at Penn State last year, but at that point both the Spartans and Nittany Lions were playing out the string. In front of no fans.
The toughest environment he’s faced was at Purdue, and Ross-Ade Stadium is only intimidating to people with a fear of train horns. Michigan State fans need no reminder that game did not turn out well, though not necessarily by any fault of Thorne’s. He played well enough to get the job done had he gotten some help from his defense, finishing 20-of-30 for 276 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception.
Thorne won’t be able to count on much help from his defense against the Buckeyes. Thirty points is a virtual lock for Ohio State, and 40 is perhaps likely. Thorne will need to exceed his Purdue production, and do so in front of 104,000 people at The Horseshoe.
How Thorne stacks up against Ohio State’s secondary
There’s at least a smidgen of hope that Thorne can be up to the task.
Ohio State’s pass defense has not been great against teams with winning records. Those opponents are averaging 297 yards per game and completing 64.6% of their passes for 8 touchdowns and just 1 interception.
The bad news for Michigan State? Thorne has been decidedly average in Big Ten competition after cruising through the non-conference schedule.
Against B1G opponents, Thorne is averaging 227 yards per game with 12 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. In terms of yards per attempt (8.3) and passer rating (145.2), he’s third in the conference in both categories. That could indicate he’s solid enough to get the job done.
The interceptions are the issue. Only Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa has thrown more interceptions in Big Ten play, and Tagovailoa is almost always playing from behind and forced to make questionable choices.
If Thorne avoids turnovers, he’s a capable enough quarterback to trouble a leaky Ohio State pass defense. But that’s asking him to do something he hasn’t done since beating Western Kentucky on Oct. 2. The sophomore has thrown at least one interception in every game since.
In other words, this looms as a very tall order for Thorne and the Spartans.