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Big time throws from Payton Thorne propels MSU to convincing win over Maryland

November 13, 2021
<p>Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne (10) throws the ball during the game against Maryland on Nov. 13, 2021, at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans defeated Maryland 40-21.</p>

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne (10) throws the ball during the game against Maryland on Nov. 13, 2021, at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans defeated Maryland 40-21.

Photo by Lauren Snyder | The State News

“It’s a play,” Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker said after MSU defeated Rutgers last month. “It's like running inside zone or outside zone or running counter. It’s another play. If they don’t cover it then it's going to be open.”

That’s what Tucker had to say about the beloved flea-flicker. For the Spartans, it is no trick play. MSU had attempted it in just about every game this season, but had not scored off the play since redshirt junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor hauled in a flea-flicker touchdown Oct. 9 versus Rutgers. It is just as much of an ordinary play for offensive coordinator Jay Johnson as any other.

Thirsty for blood after losing its first game of the season last week at Purdue, Johnson was aggressive with his scripted play-calling on the first drive of the game. So, by default, a flea-flicker had to be called.

It was the third play of the drive and the Spartans had already driven 30 yards down the field in just two plays. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne took the snap, handed it to junior running back Kenneth Walker III, who then pitched it back to Thorne. He turned to his right, immediately recognized the wide separation made by sophomore wide receiver Montorie Foster, and fired it downfield in stride for an early 52-yard touchdown.

It was Foster’s only catch of the game, but the first career touchdown for the Cleveland, Ohio native. The early fireworks were just the beginning of an offensive clinic as Michigan State lit up the scoreboard again, defeating Maryland 40-21. It was a balanced yet aggressive attack, carried with an all-around smooth performance from Thorne.

Six minutes later, redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed lined up in the slot and ran a go-route. He quickly sped past his defender and Thorne perfectly floated the ball for an easy over-the-shoulder catch for a 29-yard touchdown pass. It quickly gave Michigan State a 13-0 lead and the MSU offense was rolling.

“Coach Johnson had a game plan to call and make those play calls and we execute those plays,” Reed said. “Obviously that helped us out tremendously to start fast. That's what we harped on in the locker room before coming out. I think that was very important to get on top super fast.”

Thorne finished the quarter completing seven of eight pass attempts for 116 yards and two touchdowns. It was one of, if not the best quarter of football Thorne has played in his short career at Michigan State.

For the remainder of the game, Thorne commanded the offense with decisiveness and comfort. The MSU offensive line did a solid job in pass protection and Thorne very rarely looked lost during the play. He utilized his feet well to extend plays and did not have many bad decisions at all.

Thorne added his third passing touchdown of the first half on a short two yard pass to fifth-year tight end Connor Heyward, and the Spartans held a 27-14 lead at the half.

Michigan State senior linebacker Noah Harvey, who got the start over junior linebacker Quavaris Crouch, intercepted Maryland redshirt sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa on MSU’s goal line in the opening drive of the third quarter. Aided by a pair of first down passes from Thorne to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tre Mosley, the Spartans struck again when Thorne completed a three-yard touchdown pass to Reed, extending the MSU lead to 20 points.

It was a perfect example of the complimentary football that Tucker has been preaching over the last few weeks, in addition to a demonstration of the importance of the duo dating back to high school between Reed and Thorne, who tallied 114 yards and two touchdowns. Thorne finished the game with 287 yards, four touchdown passes and one interception.

“I thought that our defense played well today,” Thorne said. “It’s a unit effort out there to play good defense and I thought that they did that tonight and I thought that they finished well.”

Perhaps one of the more encouraging signs was Thorne’s ability to thrive without Nailor, who sat out for the second game in a row. Mosley and Foster particularly stepped up in Nailor’s absence on Saturday, but even guys who have not seen much of the field this season such as freshman wide receiver Keon Coleman and redshirt freshman wide receiver Christian Fitzpatrick contributed at the receiver position. In total, MSU had nine different pass catchers.

“We have to be able to do it and move the ball and score in different ways,” Tucker said after the game. “I think we've shown that throughout the season. We're not a one dimensional offense.”

Only once did Thorne toss a potentially-costly pass, but he was there to save the day after his mistake. On the very last play of the first half, he threw a hail mary pass from Maryland’s 37-yard line for it to be picked off by junior defensive back Nick Cross. Cross changed fields and quickly broke free across midfield. He had one man to beat, and it was Thorne.

Thorne made the touchdown-saving, one-on-one tackle on Cross, ending what could have been a disastrous finish to the half and putting the cherry on top of the all-around performance from Thorne.

“Obviously I wish I didn’t have to make a tackle tonight or ever,” Thorne said. “But, maybe they will put me out there on special teams next week.”

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