As the Michigan State offense moved with ease most of the first half of Thursday’s Peach Bowl victory over Pittsburgh, just 10 points on the scoreboard felt little. The Spartans had no trouble sustaining drives, but getting the actual points, the paramount statistic of them all, was not there.
MSU had a chance to extend its three-point lead late in the half, with the ball positioned deep in Pitt territory. That’s when the most gut-wrenching, game-changing offensive mishap came.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne faked the handoff, turned to his left and rifled a pass upfield intended for redshirt senior tight end Connor Heyward. Pittsburgh defensive back Brandon Hill read it perfectly and picked Thorne off. The Panthers proceeded to march down the field, score and suddenly lead 14-10 at the half.
Up until the interception, Thorne had been playing relatively well, completing nine of 17 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown. He helped give MSU a very early lead with a 28-yard touchdown pass to his favorite target, redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed.
However, a strip-sack touchdown by the Pitt defense to start the second half opened the floodgates for one of Thorne’s worst quarters as a college quarterback. Thorne completed just five of 14 attempts for 34 yards in the third quarter. He was clearly rattled by his two turnovers, simply missing throws he would normally make. Thorne did not look like a quarterback that would later that night break the Michigan State record for most passing touchdowns in a season set at 25 by Kirk Cousins in 2011.
MSU trailed 21-10 heading to the fourth as the offense was sputtering. The Peach Bowl was an opportunity on a personal level for Thorne to establish positive momentum in the team's lone game without junior running back Kenneth Walker III, the Walter Camp Player of the Year. But, the game was going horribly and that’s when Thorne turned to two men in the program that have helped him become one of the better Big Ten quarterbacks: A lifelong friend in Reed and head coach Mel Tucker.
Both metro Chicago natives, Reed and Thorne played with each other in high school after transferring together from Metea Valley High School to Naperville Central.
Reed, one year older than Thorne, committed to Western Michigan after not receiving a single power five offer. After an impressive freshman season with All-American accolades, Reed entered the transfer portal and committed to Michigan State in the late spring of 2019. In the meantime, Thorne de-committed from WMU and immediately flipped to Michigan State in December 2018.
“I want to be a big brother to him as I always do when things aren’t going his way because I know that he is a really good player,” Reed said. “I was trying to do my best to make sure he wasn’t getting discouraged or anything like that.”
In additional conversations on the sideline, Tucker and Thorne were looking for any sort of solution for Thorne’s slouching performance. Thorne told Tucker that he believed it was his footwork that was leading to the errant throws.
“I just told him I liked the plays that were being called,” Thorne said. “They are my favorite plays that we had in and I just wasn’t being accurate.”
“'Well, get your feet right, fix your footwork and cut it loose.” Tucker responded. “Just start slinging it.'”
Thorne took the wise words to heart and had one of the best quarters of his career to end the game. First, he led the Spartans on a 13-play, 70-yard drive, capped with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Heyward – the pass that broke Cousins’ single-season passing touchdown record. But, the Spartans still trailed by four and were in need of another touchdown drive led by the Green and White’s signal-caller.
MSU’s defense shut out Pitt in the second half, keeping the Spartans in the game. Another three-and-out by the Panthers gave the Spartans the ball with under six minutes to play. That’s when both Reed and Thorne stepped to the plate and marched down the field.
Michigan State faced three thirds and longs on the drive and Thorne delivered on all three of them, the first being an 11-yard completion to Reed, who briefly left the game with a limp after making the grab. A few more strikes from Thorne put MSU in scoring position, the perfect distance for a bread-and-butter play call that has worked well for the former high school teammates. The game-winning snag by Reed was near mirror image to some of his other clutch grabs versus Michigan and Penn State, a 50-50 ball down the right sideline.
“I love 50-50 balls because I believe they’re 100% balls coming towards my way,” Reed said.
Those are the plays that make connections like Thorne and Reed’s so special. Some of the extraordinary moments from those two may have flown under the radar because of Walker's outstanding season, but it is to no fault of their own.
It’s not always about whether the play is made, rather the timeliness is just as important too. And it reflects well on the paths that have gotten Thorne and Reed to this point. The transfer in high school, the commitment to Michigan State, the breakout seasons, the 10 touchdown passes, the highs and the lows, all of it has been together.
Thorne finished the game with 354 passing yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Thorne's 3,240 passing yards on the season is the third-best in Michigan State history.
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“Payton showed a level of maturity and just resiliency that – and I told him after the game I said ‘You know what, what you did was really hard to do.’” Tucker said. “And I told him I was proud of him and it was a great experience and the best is ahead for him.”
Reed caught six of Thorne’s 29 completions for 80 yards and two touchdowns. His 1,026 receiving yards in the season is ninth-best all-time at Michigan State and the first single-season 1,000-yard receiver since Aaron Burbridge in 2015. Reed's 10 touchdown receptions are also sixth-best all-time at Michigan State.
With his break out in 2021 accompanied by Reed's impeccable speed, vision, hands and playmaking ability as a kick and punt returner, he may have a legitimate shot at making it to the next level. Reed has not announced any decision yet, but if Thursday indeed was the redshirt junior’s final game as a Spartan, the Thorne-Reed Michigan State duo could not have ended in a much better way.
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