Monday, December 5, 2022

With season winding down, Michigan State’s offense is trending up

November 23, 2022
Redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne, 10, passes the ball to redshirt sophomore running back Jalen Berger, 8, during Michigan State’s last game at home against Indiana on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Spartan Stadium. Indiana ultimately beat the Spartans, 39-31.
Redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne, 10, passes the ball to redshirt sophomore running back Jalen Berger, 8, during Michigan State’s last game at home against Indiana on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Spartan Stadium. Indiana ultimately beat the Spartans, 39-31. —
Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

In the wake of perhaps the worst loss of the Mel Tucker era, it can be hard to think positively about the product Michigan State is putting out on the field. 

However, you have to give credit where credit is due — after a pretty shaky showing in the first half of the season, Michigan State’s offense finally seems to finally be trending in the right direction, balancing the passing attack and the ground game with efficiency. 

“At the end of the day, at this level, you’ve got to be great at running the ball and throwing the ball,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “We were a little bit off (but) I think we’ve evolved and are coming on and doing better things."

Last Saturday’s humiliating and devastating 39-31 double overtime loss to Indiana left a lot to be desired, but it certainly wasn’t the offense that lost the Spartans that game. 

MSU outgained the Hoosiers 540-288 in total yards, earned more than twice as many first downs and outpossessed the visitors by more than 10 minutes. While the ball didn’t move quite as easily down the field in the second half, overall, Michigan State’s offense did enough to win the ball game on paper. 

“I thought it was a good step last week to see what we were able to do with the run and the pass collectively together,” Johnson said. 

Besides an interception in the second half on a tipped pass that was picked, redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne had a solid afternoon against the Hoosiers.

In fact, since tossing an interception against Illinois on the very first play of the game, MSU’s quarterback has played an effective stretch of football. 

“I think he battled through some adversity early and he’s continued to climb,” Johnson said. “In these last three or four weeks he’s starting to play at a newer level and has developed.”

Now to be fair, Thorne hasn’t been perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Each week, it seems as though there are at least a few plays left on the field due to an overthrow or an underthrow. But overall, it’s hard to argue that Thorne has looked much stronger in the latter half of the season. 

The usual suspects have certainly gotten their fair share of targets — guys like redshirt senior wide receiver Jayden Reed and sophomore wide receiver Keon Coleman are still extremely active on the field — but Thorne has dished the ball to a variety of targets. 

Redshirt sophomore tight end Maliq Carr is one of the targets that has gotten a bit more love in the offense of late, notching a season-high four receptions and his first touchdown of the season against Indiana. 

An improved rushing attack certainly has to do with that effectiveness through the air. Just a few weeks ago, the Spartans were averaging less than 100 rushing yards per game, ranking near the bottom of the entire nation. They’ve topped that number for three straight weeks now, with a high of 242 yards against Indiana. 

“It helps a lot ... to get positive yards on the ground,” Thorne said. “Keeps the defense honest.”

Thanks to some truly brutal performances in the first half of the season, Michigan State still ranks outside the top 100 in rushing yards per game (averaging 121, which ranks 105th in the FBS). However, it’s still a positive sign of progress to see the statistics trending in the right direction. 

What’s perhaps most impressive about the improved rushing attack is that MSU has done it with a banged-up offensive line. Players like fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jarrett Horst and sixth-year senior offensive guard Matt Carrick have missed time in recent weeks due to injury. 

In those starters' absence, Michigan State has called upon younger, less experienced offensive linemen to fill the gaps. Redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Brandon Baldwin and redshirt freshman offensive lineman Geno VanDeMark are just a couple of young players performing admirably in a more featured role. 

“I’m really pleased with Brandon and Geno,” Johnson said. “They’ve done a very nice job and stepped in at a time of need.” 

This weekend should illustrate whether MSU’s improved offense is just a mirage or a legitimate form of progress. Heading to Happy Valley, the Spartans will take on a stout Penn State defense in a hostile environment. With bowl eligibility on the line, it’s time to see if Michigan State’s offense can truly build on the marginal gains its achieved of late. 

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