Quarterback Payton Thorne is now the face of Michigan State’s football program as the Spartans enter the offseason and begin preparations for the 2022 season.
It would be unfair to call next season a potential “breakout” year for Thorne, because the quarterback already did that in 2021 – it was just overshadowed by the emergence of Doak Walker Award-winning tailback Kenneth Walker III.
This past season, Thorne threw for 27 touchdown passes, breaking Michigan State’s single-season record previously held by Kirk Cousins (25 TDs in 2011). The redshirt sophomore also threw for 3,240 yards, the third-most ever by a Spartan quarterback (Jeff Smoker – 3,395; Cousins – 3,316).
The numbers speak for themselves, but there’s another element of Thorne’s game that can’t be quantified. It showed up in the Spartans’ comeback victory over Michigan, and then it was on full display in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Pittsburgh.
“He showed tremendous poise. He showed a level of maturity,” head coach Mel Tucker said following MSU’s 31-21 win against Pitt.
Thorne struggled mightily in the second and third quarters against the Panthers. He was out of rhythm, his timing was off, and the Spartan offense sputtered as a result.
“Coach Tuck was talking to me on the sideline, kind of asking me what I needed or what I wanted to run. And I just told him I liked the plays that were being called, they were my favorite plays that we had in, and I just wasn’t being accurate,” Thorne said. “He asked why, and I said probably my feet are messed up, because it all starts with your feet.”
“We kept communicating,” Tucker added. “He said that he was missing some throws, and he wasn’t accurate, and I asked him, ‘Why?’ Why is that? He told me that it was his footwork, and that he was just not delivering the ball the way he normally does. And I told him, ‘Well, get your feet right. Fix your footwork, and cut it loose. Just start slinging it.’ And he said, ‘Okay’. Then he went out and he did that.”
Trailing 21-10 in the fourth quarter, Thorne went 14-of-19 for 144 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Spartans back.
“Payton showed a level of maturity and just resiliency,” Tucker said. “And I told him after the game, ‘You know, what you did was really hard to do.’ I was really proud of him for that, and it’s a great experience and I think the best is ahead for him.”
Thorne’s ability to shake off long stretches of ineffectiveness and come back to play his best football is the perfect embodiment of Tucker’s favorite mantra – Keep Chopping. That mindset, instilled by Tucker, has been ingrained in the minds of Michigan State’s players, coaches and fanbase.
“The whole game my teammates kept telling me to stay up, and really, just keep chopping,” Thorne said. “That’s what we talk about and we really say that on the sideline. Coaches – same thing. I even heard fans saying that from the sideline.
“Sometimes, when you’re playing like I was playing, fans are going to start to boo you. That’s warranted. I’m not saying fans shouldn’t do that, but they didn’t. They really didn’t. They kept saying, ‘We believe in you’, I heard that from the crowd.”
It was a special end to a special season for Thorne. Now, as the calendar turns to 2022, next season will provide more challenges for the quarterback.
Michigan State’s ability to run the ball is something of a question mark with the departure of Walker, who covered some of the deficiencies along the offensive line with his elusiveness and playmaking abilities.
The Spartans may have to call on their quarterback more than ever next season, but if that’s the case, they should have confidence that Thorne is up for that challenge.