The biggest question entering the 2021 season for Michigan State is who will be under center on Sept. 3 against Northwestern. It has been no secret all summer that MSU does not have a starting quarterback set for the season as Anthony Russo and Payton Thorne have been competing for the job to lead the offense.
This is the first true quarterback competition for Michigan State since the 2016 offseason when MSU was deciding between Tyler O’Connor, Damion Terry and Brian Lewerke. It is the most important decision Mel Tucker has had to make since taking the helm last February because inconsistencies at quarterback have plagued the Spartans for the past three seasons and led to an anemic MSU offense.
Tucker has repeated throughout summer press conferences and fall camp that a decision has not been made yet as he wants to fully evaluate each option to see who will be the best fit for what MSU wants to do with their offensive system.
Thorne and Russo are very different stylistically and bring unique options for Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. The choice between the two will give insight into who they believe is best suited to win now and how MSU views the position of quarterback within the offense.
Russo is the new guy on campus despite having by far the most experience of the four quarterbacks on the MSU roster. Russo transferred to Michigan State this offseason as a graduate transfer after spending the first four years of his college career with Temple.
Russo was the starter for the Owls for the past three years, leading the team to a 16-9 record in games that he started. He threw for 6287 yards and 44 touchdowns at Temple and thrived at throwing on the run and stretching the defense with vertical attacks.
Russo is a traditional pro-style quarterback, standing at 6 feet 4 inches and 240 pounds with a massive arm. He has the talent and arm strength to make any throw on the field and could provide MSU with a vertical passing game that was lacking with Thorne as the starter last year.
Russo also rushed for seven touchdowns and looked comfortable using his legs and large frame to his advantage to extend plays and keep the defense honest. He is not the runner that Thorne proved to be last season for MSU, but is still effective enough to provide that wrinkle to MSU’s offense that Johnson wants.
In the video above, you can see all the positives that Russo can bring to MSU’s offense. He has the arm talent to take advantage of the speed that MSU has at wide receiver to stretch the defense and can run when he needs to.
The experience that Russo has as a starting quarterback is his biggest advantage in the battle for the starting spot. Michigan State’s team is full of new faces and having a guy that has hundreds of reps leading the team could provide the stability MSU needs as younger players get their feet wet.
The biggest drawback for Russo was his struggles to take care of the ball. He threw 32 interceptions in his 25 career starts, which could lead him to being the backup this year if he proves that he still cannot take care of the football. Tucker’s biggest pet peeve is turnovers and that could end up being the downfall of Russo this year.
Let’s jump to the guy that MSU fans became familiar with last year during the upside-down 2020 season. Thorne appeared in four games for Michigan State last year and started the final game of the year against Penn State.
Thorne remained as the backup for most of the year behind Rocky Lombardi but took over the job towards the end of the year as Lombardi struggled to take care of the ball and provide MSU with an effective passing game outside of the Michigan and Northwestern games.
Thorne did not put up gaudy stats by any means when he was in, but provided stability to MSU’s offense that was absent when Lombardi was in the game. Thorne threw for 582 yards and three touchdowns in his four appearances.
The biggest takeaway from Thorne’s 2020 season was from his lone start against Penn State. Thorne threw for 325 yards and all three of his touchdowns against the Nittany Lions in his only opportunity to run MSU’s offense for a full game. The 325 yards was a record for a Spartan quarterback in a first career start and showcased Thorne’s understanding of the offense and chemistry with the wide receivers.
He also showed that he can be a dual-threat quarterback in MSU’s offense in his limited appearances last year. Thorne only ran for 47 yards but his numbers were hurt by sacks which count against rushing stats in college football. He broke a 20-yard run or more three separate times, including a 20-yard touchdown run against Ohio State. He can throw on the move effectively and provide more of a threat running the ball than Russo.
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Another advantage for Thorne is his experience in Johnson’s offense and compatibility with the wide receivers. He has had an extra year to learn the offense and build a rapport with the offense compared to Russo, giving him a slight advantage in that regard. Also, Thorne played high school football with starting receiver Jayden Reed and that could lead to a healthy and consistent connection between the two if Thorne starts.
The drawback to Thorne starting over Russo is that Thorne does not have the experience Russo has. Russo has started five times as many games as Thorne at the college level and could possibly be a better leader for a young and inexperienced Spartan team.
The decision for who will be starting will most likely not be announced until MSU takes the field against Northwestern on Sept. 3 and both quarterbacks could see time early on in the year. Tucker has been adamant that he wants to have one guy for the whole year, but that could quickly change if whoever gets the nod struggles early on.
No matter who starts, their success is imperative if Michigan State wants to have an offense that can move the ball effectively, which has not been present at MSU since the days of Lewerke before his shoulder injury.
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