Michigan State football: In loss to Penn State, Spartans find their biggest win at QB
What a fitting way for Michigan State to wrap up its season. A year with such high highs and low lows was punctuated by a game featuring the best development of the season and yet also a blown double-digit lead.
While Mel Tucker’s first season is one to quickly forget, the Spartans can have major optimism about 2021 despite squandering a 21-10 lead. After spending weeks watching an inconsistent Rocky Lombardi commit turnovers and battle injury, redshirt freshman Payton Thorne finally got a full week of preparation as the starter, and he seized the moment in Happy Valley.
“I can tell you that he was poised … he wasn’t rattled,” Tucker said about Thorne. “He was into the game. He was aware. Even when we started slow, he was there. And that’s good to see. Had a good look in his eye.”
When Thorne threw an interception on his first pass attempt of the game, it looked like Michigan State was in for another long day. But as Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker fumbled the return and the Spartans regained possession, a new Thorne emerged, one that was not seen while throwing 20 passes against Indiana to the tune of 10 completions for just 110 yards.
Thorne showed veteran poise, bouncing back from the interception to complete 11 of his next 12 passes for 202 yards and 3 touchdowns, including a 45-yard score to Jalen Nailor. The Spartans opened up a 21-10 lead behind Thorne’s efforts before cooling down in the second half. Thorne finished the day 22-for-39 for 325 yards and set program records for the most passing yards in a game by a freshman and the most for a Spartan in his first start.
“I really liked the plays we were running and I liked how we were executing,” Thorne said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t carry that over into the second half at all. So, we’ve got to be better at keeping it going.”
To put it simply, Thorne looked great in his first start. But if he excelled so much in the final game of the season, why did it take 8 games to make him the starter?
For one, Michigan State was installing a new offense with zero offseason. Lombardi had a leg up in experience, so he was the clear-cut favorite to start in Week 1. When Thorne finally got a chance at a decent stretch of action against Indiana, he struggled with pressure and the Spartans were held off the scoreboard. It wasn’t until Lombardi went down against Ohio State and Thorne came in that Michigan State’s offense had some mild success, enough to give Thorne the reins. A solid week of practice leading up to Penn State left Tucker confident in his decision to change starters.
“Same thing I see in practice,” Tucker said the offense’s early success. “There’s nothing that happens on the field that we don’t see in practice. Even when Rocky was in there, there’s no surprises. … We had a competition for the spot and he’s continued to get better and he’s a competitor. So I wasn’t surprised by anything that I saw out of him today. He can do some good things.”
When Thorne completed his second touchdown pass to Nailor with 1:26 left in the first half, it marked the first time all season Michigan State scored on back-to-back possessions. It was the last time the Spartans would find the end zone as Penn State’s defense stifled Michigan State’s offense to just 147 yards in the second half, but what Thorne displayed in the first 30 minutes provided the most optimism Michigan State has had since it knocked off then-No. 8 Northwestern two weeks ago.
The Spartans have several young weapons who will all be back for at least another year. There’s Thorne’s high school teammate Jayden Reed, who caught 6 passes for 76 yards, and even freshman running back Jordon Simmons, who had the best game of his career with 72 yards on 14 carries against a pretty stout Penn State front seven. Nailor can return for his fourth season as well, and he just had the second best game of his season with Thorne at the helm.
“I felt like we had a team that could win the game,” Tucker said. “I felt good about our football team and about what we could do. And after the game, I feel the same way about this football team. I feel that we can do some good things and that we can win some games and that we have a bright future.”
Sure the Land Grant Trophy will have to spend another year away from East Lansing and the Spartans will finish last in the Big Ten East, but this season was never about wins and losses. 2020 was about establishing a culture and building for 2021 and 2022. Michigan State left Happy Valley with a loss, but it may have left with a much bigger win.