Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Preparing for Michigan: Rocky Lombardi and the Michigan State offense look to expand run game

October 28, 2020
MSU takes posession during a game against Rutgers on Oct. 24, 2020.
MSU takes posession during a game against Rutgers on Oct. 24, 2020. —
Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

After an up and down day on offense in their loss versus Rutgers, junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi and the Michigan State offense are looking to bounce back against their rival Michigan this Saturday.

Lombardi in his first start for the Spartans since replacing an injured Brian Lewerke in 2018, threw for 319 yards that equated to three touchdowns and two interceptions against Rutgers.

“At the end of the day, my performance wasn’t enough to win us the game — in my mind, I need to be better,” Lombardi said. “Some things I did well was I completed most of my passes, I kept the ball in play, I kept us moving in the right direction.”

When Lombardi started his last game for Michigan State, it was his freshman year versus Rutgers where he only completed 44% of his passes, and under 37% in the previous game against Nebraska.

“My prep will be a lot different this year considering last year I played the game as a personal protector for the punt team,” Lombardi said. “It's exciting to finally get out there as a starting quarterback from my position. It's ultimately the same, you have to go out there, you have to rep your plays, you have to see the looks. It's exciting to take some of the reps in practice now and really feel like I have comfortability and what I'm doing with the offense and how I'm seeing the defense.”

Lombardi’s performance drew high praise from the coaching staff as well, entrenching him as the starter going forward.

“We're going to build on some of the things that he did in that game, and then some things we need to clean up,” Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker said. “He's very coachable, and his want to factor is really high. With Peyton (Thorne) and Theo (Day) and Noah (Kim), those guys are also capable, and we feel comfortable with those guys going in the game, I never felt like there was a need or in the discussion about taking Rocky out. I was very happy with the way he competed in the game.”

Lombardi’s three starts at Michigan State came after Brian Lewerke’s injury. Without the constant dark cloud of being benched overhead, Lombardi now has that weight lifted off his shoulders and can begin to let loose.

"It does a lot for the staff to have confidence in myself, that gives me more confidence to go out there and play,” Lombardi said. Taking every rep in practice is really important too because you get to see the looks. When you don't take reps in practice and then go out there in a game, you think you see it and you see it on film, and you see it in practice when you're around the side, but actually going in there and seeing it from the perspective of the position you play is a lot different.”

Lombardi’s turnovers were what stopped his first start since 2018 from being near perfect. With a fumble early on in the first quarter, the pocket collapsed quickly, and Lombardi, instead of taking the sack, tried to make a play. 

His first interception was a miscommunication between him and his wide receiver Jalen Nailor, who continued to streak up field when Lombardi expected his wide receiver to come back. The second interception iced the game when they were down 11 and Lombardi needed to make something happen.

“From my perspective I expect myself to be perfect on every play,” Lombardi said. “I'm a perfectionist and that's how you should carry yourself. You want to execute everything to the best of your abilities at all times. I know I can make that throw, it was a little high, so I was frustrated with myself, but at the end of the day, the play is over. One second, you move on to the next play and that's all I can do about it. It's really just about getting comfortable with yourself and now I feel like I'm so much more comfortable in the pocket, and that I can make some of those throws. My accuracy has been so much better than I was two years ago.”

To have a chance against this tough Michigan defense and take the pressure off of Lombardi, the Spartans will need to get the run game going, which didn’t happen against Rutgers last week. 

“We've got to run the ball better,” Tucker said. We need to be able to run the ball on our terms because being balanced on offense and not being one dimensional is critically important. I believe that with a combination of improvement up front on some technique and fundamentals and some communication things, just hitting the hole with the velocity and explosiveness that we need to, I believe that we can do a better job running the football.”

The run game was expected to be led by Elijah Collins, but Tucker has opted for a running back by committee approach.

“We play multiple backs and we're going to continue to do that,” Tucker said. "I thought Jordon Simmons was someone who impressed me in the game. As a true freshman coming in, running hard, and really taking advantage of some of the creases that the offensive line created."

With a more balanced offense and fewer turnovers, the Michigan State offense will have a better chance at taking down the Wolverines than they did Rutgers the week prior.

“There's not a day that goes by where you don't hear about this game from someone in one way, shape or form,” Tucker said. It’s certainly not just a game and that's what makes college football special, are these types of rivalries. That's what makes it special to be here at State.”

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