The theme at post-game press conference’s following each of Michigan State’s two losses these past couple weeks has been the Spartans’ inability to play complimentary football.
The basic idea of complimentary football is when the offense, defense and special teams works together to give the team as a whole the best chance at success. However, there are pieces of each facet of the game that have to complement each other as well. For instance, on offense, the run game and pass game must work in tandem to keep a defense from keying on one or the other.
Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne has drawn the ire of onlookers for his play so far this season, and the criticism is not without merit. After throwing 10 interceptions in 13 games last season, Thorne has already thrown six interceptions in four games this season.
Thorne has also had accuracy issues crop up and he’s struggled to connect with his receivers on deep-to-intermediate throws at times. While the redshirt junior’s completion percentage through four games (65.3 percent) is actually higher than his 2021 percentage (60.4), Thorne’s yards per pass attempt (7.6) is down from last season (8.3).
With a full season of starting experience under his belt, many expected Thorne to take another step forward as a quarterback and be the focal point of Michigan State’s offense in 2022. That hasn’t come to fruition, and while the quarterback isn’t absolved of blame for that, MSU hasn’t done enough to help its second-year starting quarterback either.
Put simply, the Spartans don’t have a running threat like they did in 2021, and it’s allowing opposing defenses to pay closer attention to MSU’s pass-catching weapons.
Last year, opponets had to account for Kenneth Walker III – sometimes devoting one or two defenders solely to keep K9 from getting loose. That created more one-on-one matchups on the outside for Michigan State, and with weapons like Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, Thorne almost always had a matchup that he liked.
But Walker is a Seattle Seahawk now, and Michigan State’s run game has been completely shut down these last two weeks against Washington and Minnesota. The Spartans have averaged just 40 yards rushing in those games, and that puts all of the pressure squarely on Thorne’s shoulders to move the offense down the field.
Against the Huskies’ inexperienced secondary, Thorne was able to do that. He threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns while completing 71.4 percent of his throws. But against the Golden Gophers’ more veteran secondary, the redshirt junior struggled mightily, throwing for just 132 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
He also had a critical fumble on Michigan State’s first drive of the second half against Minnesota. Trailing 17-0, the Spartans put a good drive together out of halftime and got themselves in scoring position. However, Thorne kept the ball on a read-option play and fumbled inside the Gophers’ 10 yard line. Minnesota recovered the fumble, and that was really the last gasp for MSU.
“It feels like every time we’re rolling, there’s a little setback,” Thorne said. “That’s kind of what it felt like today. That first drive of the second half, we’re rolling, we’re rolling, we’re rolling and then – fumble.”
Michigan State has already turned the ball over eight times this season. Thorne is responsible for seven of them.
“You look at a couple of his turnovers, and if you really look at it…he tried to do too much,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said after the loss to Washington. “He has such a competitive spirit. Sometimes, you try to do a little too much…make that next big play.”
It’s very possible that Thorne is trying to do things beyond his capabilities because of the pressure on him to be the drive force of the offense. Again, with how poorly the Spartans have run the football these past two weeks, it puts a ton of pressure on the quarterback to do things on his own.
Thorne is a good quarterback. You don’t throw for a school-record 27 touchdowns in one season, or the third-most passing yards in a single season (3,240) without being a good quarterback. But what the 2022 season has revealed, at least so far, it that Thorne is not good enough a quarterback to move Michigan State down the field without the benefit of a running threat.
Michigan State is 12th in the Big Ten this season in rushing yards per game (134.3), down from sixth in the conference a year ago (175.6). Walker covered up for the Spartans’ deficiencies along the offensive line with his elusiveness and explosiveness. Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard are fine tailbacks, but they aren’t what No. 9 was or is.
“I don’t have a level of concern. If I had a level, it would be very low,” Thorne said when asked about MSU’s lack of success in the run game. “I have confidence in our offensive line, confidence in our running backs and it all goes hand-in-hand. We’re just going to be looking to get better in every area of our offense.”
That’s fine for Thorne to say. A team captain isn’t going to throw his teammates under the bus when talking to the media. But just because he said that doesn’t mean Michigan State doesn’t have problems.
The Spartans have weapons in Reed and fellow wide receivers Keon Coleman, Tre Mosley and Germie Bernard. MSU has a trio of tight ends – Daniel Barker, Maliq Carr and Tyler Hunt – who can make plays downfield.
But Michigan State’s offense is centered around establishing the run and setting up play-action. That can’t happen when you’re averaging 1.86 yards per carry over these last two games.
“We’ve just got to be better,” Thorne said after the loss to Minnesota. “Complimentary – both the run and the pass, play-action, quick game, RPO, all of that. It feels like we’ve done some things well here and there, but all of it clicking at once – it hasn’t really felt like that.”
Are Michigan State’s run game issues solvable mid-season? We’re about to find out, as the Spartans have a brutal stretch of games coming up against Maryland, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan. If MSU can’t find a way to be more effective on the ground, then they’re in for a long season.
And so is their quarterback.
“We’ve got to come together as we move forward,” Thorne said. “Good teams, and teams that are families, they come together during tough times and they move forward together. So, that’s what our plan is.”