The biggest decision for Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker and Michigan State was who would be the starting quarterback. Anthony Russo or Payton Thorne?
No one besides Tucker and the offense itself knew who it would be before tonight’s game against Northwestern.
However, the battle that lasted throughout the duration of the summer and fall camp was all but announced during the final stages of warmups for Michigan State as Thorne took all the reps with the first-team offense and shared conversations with Tucker before the game, signaling he would be the guy over Russo.
And he was.
Thorne played every offensive snap for Michigan State and led them to a 38-21 victory over Northwestern, his first career win as a starter.
Thorne looked like he had been starting for MSU for years. In his second career start, Thorne was cool, calm and collected and helped shepherd Michigan State’s offense down the field without a hitch from start to finish.
“I thought he had a solid night, he ran a good show,” Tucker said following the game. “ I think he had 40+ yards rushing in the first half, which is part of his game. I really liked the way he stepped up in the pocket, he saw some pocket awareness and presence, stepping up, you know, subtle movements and being able to deliver the ball down the field.
Michigan State did not even need a quarterback out there though in all honesty.
Tonight was the Kenneth Walker III masterclass performance and Thorne did not have to do much besides turn and hand the ball off to him and let him do his thing. Walker finished with a whopping 264 yards and four touchdowns on 23 carries, accounting for 51.6% of MSU’s total offense.
“It makes it a ton better,” Thorne said in the post-game press conference. “To have our offensive line play the way they did tonight and then obviously Ken (Walker) and we had some other backs that played well as well so it was very, very good to see.”
Thorne did what he needed to do to compliment Walker through the air, throwing for 185 yards and a touchdown on 15-26 passing and ran for 28 yards. The offense was focused on the run and Thorne just needed to provide enough of a change of pace to keep Northwestern off-balanced but gave all the credit to the offensive line and Walker.
“I thought Ken played outstanding,” Thorne said. “I thought our offensive line played very well, and the guys around me made it easy tonight and I thought we played well as an offense.”
The pass protection from the offensive line was stellar. Thorne stayed upright for most of the game by using his mobility to extend plays or pick up the yards himself.
His most effective drive throwing the ball came in the third quarter to extend Michigan State’s lead to 21 again. It started out with a deep pass to Tre Mosley who made a spectacular diving catch for 27 yards. Thorne was 5-6 on the drive that included outstanding catches from Mosley and Jayden Reed.
“We got playing fast there a little bit so it was good to see the guys,” Thorne said. “Tre I think on that drive had a great catch. He really started the drive and then we were rolling from there so it was a good drive.”
The biggest positive from Thorne tonight was his maturity on the field. He was never in a rush even when Northwestern defenders managed to get past the unwavering Michigan State offensive line and made the right choice every time he was in a precarious spot.
The placement of his throws were good too. They were not in the perfect window every time, but he kept the ball out of Northwestern defenders’ reach and gave his skill position players a chance to make a play, which happened often. He allowed players like Jalen Nailor, Reed and even Connor Heyward to go make a play on the ball where the defender did not have a chance.
Despite the success of the entire offensive unit, Thorne is not ready to get ahead of himself heading into next week against Youngstown State next Saturday.
“A conference win is a conference win, so it was good to see,” Thorne said. “It's just one week so we'll never be too high, we'll never be too low, and we're going to come in next week and get to work.”
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