It’s no secret that Michigan State and Western Michigan have plenty of connections.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Jayden Reed started off his collegiate career with the Broncos. Redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne’s father is the offensive coordinator for Western Michigan. Running back La'Darius Jefferson played at Michigan State before transferring to WMU.
In short, there’s plenty of noise and a bevy of storylines heading into Friday’s home-opener. However, the Spartan staff and players alike are focused on their own sideline, not their opponents.
“Everything else is just noise,” Head Coach Mel Tucker said. “We can’t get ahead of ourselves, because we have to be ready to play a great football game - sixty minutes, one play at a time.”
The MSU-WMU connections
After two decades coaching with North Central College in Illinois, Jeff Thorne made the leap to Division 1 ball this offseason, joining Western Michigan’s coaching staff as the offensive coordinator. His first opponent happens to be led by his son.
With both Thorne's on the offensive side of the ball, there won’t be any head-to-head competition between the two. In fact, Jeff Thorne won't even be on the field - he'll be up in the booth, calling plays. The situation might complicate the rooting interests of the Thorne family, but the junior QB is not too concerned about the unusual situation.
“It’ll be interesting, but I’m not really paying too much attention to it,” Payton Thorne said. “For me, we’re playing Western Michigan.”
For Reed, the connection with Western Michigan is even stronger. The prolific receiver played his freshman season with the Broncos, earning 797 yards and eight touchdowns on 56 receptions. After one season in Kalamazoo, Reed packed his bags and transferred over to East Lansing to play in Green and White. While his loyalties now lie with Michigan State, Reed will always have gratitude for Western Michigan and the opportunity the program gave him.
“I wouldn’t be here without them (Western Michigan). I really appreciate them – the whole coaching staff, everybody there. They brought me into college football,” Reed said.
Reed is also extremely close to the Thorne family, forming a paternal bond of sorts with Jeff while playing high school football.
However, just like his quarterback, Reed is not focused on the past or who’s on the opposing staff. He’s worried about his play and his own locker room.
“We’ve approached it like any other game,” Reed said. “We’re not letting anything be too big for us.”
There is yet another connection between the two programs - former MSU RB Le'darius Jefferson. After two years with Michigan State, Jefferson transferred to Western Michigan. He’s carved out a major role with the Broncos in his two seasons with the team, notching 15 touchdowns and nearly 1,500 yards combined. Jefferson will certainly be a major piece on MSU’s scouting report.
Heading into 2021, fan and media expectations were virtually non-existent. To get a winning record and make a bowl game would have been considered a success by most.
Those expectations were drastically altered after a 10-2 regular season, capped off with a win over Pitt in the Peach Bowl. For the first time in the Mel Tucker era, Michigan State is ranked in the AP Poll heading into the season, finding itself at No. 15. The expectation is no longer to make a bowl game or make it to seven wins. The goal is to compete with the best the Big Ten has to offer.
Heading into a new season, the players and the staff seem more than ready to match these lofty expectations – if not exceed them.
“We look to win every game on our schedule,” Reed said. “That’s just the standard here.”
Western Michigan is not necessarily the most challenging way to kick off the season. But considering the weight of expectations and the connections between the two programs, Friday will offer Tucker the chance to prove just how well his squad can block out the noise.
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