Michigan State could turn to Thorne

  • Payton Thorne could get the start Saturday when Michigan State hosts unbeaten Northwestern.

    Payton Thorne could get the start Saturday when Michigan State hosts unbeaten Northwestern. Associated Press

  • Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne scans downfield for an open receiver against Indiana Nov. 14 in East Lansing, Mich.

    Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne scans downfield for an open receiver against Indiana Nov. 14 in East Lansing, Mich. Associated Press

  • Payton Thorne escapes trouble in the second half against Indiana two weeks ago in East Lansing, Mich.

    Payton Thorne escapes trouble in the second half against Indiana two weeks ago in East Lansing, Mich. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 11/26/2020 10:34 AM

At a time when we are constantly encouraged to be flexible and ready for anything and everything, the Michigan State quarterback situation fits right in with that narrative.

The Spartans, who are 1-3 and will be hosting undefeated and eighth-ranked Northwestern (5-0) at Spartan Stadium on Saturday (2:30 p.m., ESPN2), have lost two straight games and seemed to be experimenting at quarterback in their most recent loss, to Indiana (24-0) on Nov. 14.

 

That experiment benefited former local standout Payton Thorne, who played his high school football at Naperville Central.

Thorne, a redshirt freshman, replaced Michigan State starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi, a redshirt junior, in the second quarter of the Indiana loss.

Given that Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker had yet to announce a starter at quarterback for the Northwestern game as of Thursday morning, it would appear that Thorne is being considered for his first collegiate start.

Tucker, however, is keeping his plans close to the vest, and still seems to be considering all options.

"It's going to be an ongoing thing," Tucker said of his regular evaluation of the quarterback situation. "The clarity comes just as a reminder and it reinforces that competition is what this is all about and there is nothing set in stone.

"Everyone has to compete and it doesn't have anything to do with what you've done in the past. It's what you've done most recently. You're only as good as your next play. That's the world we live in and the nature of our game and our existence. We have to prove ourselves every day. That's part of our culture. We've got to embrace that and lean into that. Players who lean into that and have a chip on their shoulder every day and are proving themselves every day and are willing to compete, when you have enough guys like that, you start to cement your culture."

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Thorne proved to be competitive when called on two weeks ago.

Against the Hoosiers, Thorne took 39 of 52 snaps and completed 10-of-20 passes for 110 yards with 1 interception. In his first play of the game in the second quarter, he scampered for a 38-yard rush, Michigan State's longest rush from scrimmage of the season.

Although Thorne is gaining ground, Lombardi has had some bright moments this season.

Lombardi was named the Manning Award National Quarterback of the Week for his performance in Michigan State's win on Oct. 31 at Michigan. Lombardi was 17-of-32 passing for 323 yards and 3 touchdowns and became the first Spartan quarterback since Jeff Smoker in 2003 to throw for more than 300 yards in the first two games of the season.

Thorne, who spent most of his true freshman season last year on the scout team, did see more time during Michigan State's postseason bowl practices. He seems to be trending sharply upward.

Now, the Michigan State coaching staff is trying to determine which quarterback, Lombardi or Thorne, will not only direct a more efficient offense but also best take care of the ball against an opportunistic and aggressive Northwestern defense.

"Northwestern is fundamentally sound and they play hard and they play physical," Tucker said. "They're in the Top 10 in the country in turnover margin. It's not that they don't give it up, because they have turned the ball over in terms of fumbles and interceptions.

"But they take the ball away. I think they have 15 take-aways in 5 games and are plus 7 or 8 in turnover margin. That's huge because it gives you the opportunity to win."

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