Saturday, November 28, 2020

COLUMN: With 1 win, the Spartans might've just been a flash in the pan

November 17, 2020
<p>MSU quarterback Payton Thorne (10) carries the ball for MSU in a game against Indiana University in Spartan Stadium on Nov. 14, 2020.</p>

MSU quarterback Payton Thorne (10) carries the ball for MSU in a game against Indiana University in Spartan Stadium on Nov. 14, 2020.

Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

It was there, then it was gone. 

Since the 27-24 win by MSU over Michigan, the Spartans have been outscored 73-7 in two games. The 49-7 loss in Iowa was followed up by a 24-0 extermination of MSU by No. 9 Indiana. 

“Obviously, again, turnovers and penalties in the first half against any type of  team, any team, you do not give yourself a chance," MSU Head Coach Mel Tucker said. "That was basically the story of this game." 

MSU turned it over four times, which gives them 14 in four games on the year. I’ve always heard that turnover margin is the most important stat in football. Well, yeah.

The Spartans are 1-3. Indiana, who is thriving under Head Coach Tom Allen, is 4-0. Two programs in very different places. After that win in Ann Arbor, one that not even Vegas expected, I thought this team had caught lightning in a bottle.

I was wrong. 

Since that game, which will stick out as an outlier in a weird year, MSU quarterback Rocky Lombardi is 20-of-44 with five interceptions and no touchdown passes. 

Heading into Iowa, I really thought he could be the guy. 

Ricky White had just caught eight passes for 196 yards. It looked like the Spartan passing game, as fragile as this season and team is, had found legs it didn’t have since 2017. It was a flash in the pan. Michigan is 1-3 with their only win against a 1-3 Minnesota team. 

For a second week, Lombardi wasn’t getting it done. MSU turned to redshirt-freshman Payton Thorne who on his first snap, proceeded to run 38 yards, knifing into the Hoosier secondary and running for his life.

Lombardi made two poor decisions on two throws, both picked off by IU defensive back Tiawan Mullen. 

The team that everyone saw on Saturday against Indiana was closer to Rutgers than Paul Bunyan trophy winners. Is Indiana a great football team? Yes. But that doesn’t change the fact this MSU team could easily be 0-4.

Where do you go from here?

I think if MSU goes all in that this is a rebuilding year, they should turn to Thorne full time and live with the results. 

He has obvious talent, a throw rolling to his right on a rope to Jayden Reed, who made a great grab on the IU sideline during the fourth quarter, was proof of that. He can spin it, but with how much consistency? I don’t know. 

Regardless, he deserves a chance. Things have already swerved from good to bad week-to-week with Lombardi under center. He’s a leader in the locker room, so maybe Tucker decides to stick to the oldest guy in the QB room.

Only time will tell.

A defense that didn't give up a point in the second half of Saturday's game deserves credit. Even if they've given up 49 and 24 points, if this MSU offense was more efficient, Saturday's outcome would have looked different.

Indiana scored 17 of its points on drives starting at the MSU 16, 24 and 50-yard lines. 

MSU’s job on offense isn’t to put pressure on their own defense. They were supposed to do that to the Indiana defense. More often, just as it did in the Rutgers game, the MSU offense is putting the defense in spots that just are not conducive to success. It's simple.

MSU might need to reckon with this season and commit to the rebuild.

Consistency, which all the coaches preach, only comes in the form of averaging 3.5 turnovers a game on the year. After the past two weeks, the next four just become critical to see who on this roster is going to give the Spartans their best chance to compete at the highest level.

Injuries are a problem, but not an excuse.

MSU didn’t dress cornerbacks Kalon Gervin Saturday and Chris Jackson missed a second straight game. The result of that manifested in the form of Ty Fryfogle, who, frankly, I’m not sure even the hand of God could’ve stopped in the first half of Saturday’s game. 

He had 178 receiving yards in the first two quarters and finished with 200 total on 11 catches and two touchdowns during the game. That’s No. 7 all-time in IU program history for a single game.

Injuries are a problem, but not an excuse. Every team is in a war of attrition during this COVID season, it just isn't clear that Tucker knows what his players are capable of.

The Spartans are scheduled to play Maryland on Saturday, but after the Terrapins’ game against Ohio State was canceled due to COVID-19 outbreaks, it might be scrapped if things continue to trend this way.

That game is on Nov. 21 and Maryland, at 2-1, looks to be more than just an equal to MSU right now.

This column is part of our Election Aftermath print issue. Read the full issue here.

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