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Analysis: Payton Thorne deftly pilots Michigan State offense, but tests will get tougher


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East Lansing — Through two games this season, it would be hard to find a Michigan State fan who isn’t happy with where the Spartans stand.

Buy into the preseason expectations or not, they generally were not high for coach Mel Tucker as he entered his second season at the helm. After winning only two games last year and entering 2021 with plenty of uncertainty thanks to an extensive roster overhaul, it was fair to wonder how good Michigan State would be.

But as the unbeaten Spartans (2-0) prepare to head to No. 24 Miami on Saturday, things are going about as well as expected. The running game has come to life, thanks to transfer back Kenneth Walker III and an offensive line that is finally playing as a cohesive unit. The big-play wide receivers — Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor — are doing just that, and the defense has been good enough, if not spectacular.

What’s been almost as impressive as anything, even in a fairly understated way, has been the play at quarterback.

From the moment Anthony Russo announced in December that he was transferring to Michigan State from Temple, the battle was on. Payton Thorne had played well in limited action in 2020 — his 325 passing yards and three touchdowns in his only start at Penn State stood out — but with the arrival of a veteran QB, it was clear Tucker and his staff weren’t yet sold on Thorne, who was entering his third year in the program.

Throughout the spring and into preseason camp it was a constant question — who is leading in the quarterback battle? Tucker gave no hints as Thorne and Russo split reps, but by the night of the opener at Northwestern, Tucker announced it was, indeed, Thorne who had gotten the call.

And two games into his time as Michigan State’s starting quarterback, Thorne has been exactly what the Spartans need him to be — smart, efficient and, at times, impressive.

“(Offensive coordinator and quarterback coach) Jay (Johnson) has done a phenomenal job with Payton and all of our quarterbacks,” Tucker said. “Consistency in performance is how you become successful, and that’s what it's all about. It’s going out and executing the game plan, taking care of the football, ensuring that we're in the right plays and taking what the defense gives us. It’s playing complementary football, not leaving it up to one guy or one side of the ball and feeling like you have to do it all.”

To this point, Thorne is doing all those things. He’s executing the game plan and taking care of the football, evidenced by the fact he hasn’t thrown and interception in 46 pass attempts. That’s nothing to sneeze at, considering the Spartans threw 12 interceptions last season in just seven games, piling up 22 total turnovers.

He’s also taking what the defense is giving, checking down when necessary while not shying away from the big play. He connected with Reed on a 75-yard pass to open the game against Youngstown State and later tossed his longtime teammate an 85-yard scoring strike. It was all part of a five-touchdown day — Thorne ran for one touchdown — as Thorne is 30-for-46 for 465 yards and five touchdowns on the season.

Of course, Thorne was quick to point out his success was possible only because of the entire offense.

“It starts up front,” Thorne said after beating Youngstown State. “They gave us time today, they played really well up front in pass protection and running the ball. So credit to them, and then these guys are running good routes, getting open. So I thought that we executed that pretty well.

“There’s still room to grow for us, and then we're looking forward to getting after that this week.”

Like the rest of the team, the tests start getting tougher for Thorne this week. Northwestern is a Big Ten foe, but the Wildcats lost plenty from last season’s West Division championship team while Youngstown State is an FCS team that nearly lost to Incarnate Word in the opener.

In the Hurricanes, the Spartans will face a team with a much higher level of talent. Entering the season, Miami (1-1) had aspirations of winning the Atlantic Coast Conference.

However, the 'Canes have had their own issues, getting blown out in the opener against No. 1 Alabama and barely beating Appalachian State last week. They’ve also suffered some significant personnel losses, including linebacker Keontra Smith, and have been susceptible to giving up some big plays in the secondary.

But they’ve got a formidable defensive front that has produced 17 tackles for loss through the first two games. And you can bet they’ll be dialed in to not only slowing down Walker and the running attack, but doing their best to make life hard on Thorne, who will be starting only the fourth game of his career.

“I really think the quarterback is making it all go,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said of Thorne. “He’s got ability with is arm and he's also got ability with his feet. He will pull zone reads, he’s a threat to run the ball and a threat to scramble. So, it's going to be a great challenge for us on defense.”

It’s been a while since a Michigan State quarterback has grabbed the attention of an opponent. Even with a potent running game, Thorne is starting to do that.

A lot will be determined Saturday and beyond as the schedule ramps up, but the early returns on Thorne as Michigan State’s starting quarterback are encouraging.

“I would say that your confidence comes from your preparation,” Thorne said. “The way that we’ve prepared these past two weeks has put us in a good position to go out and play well. And that's going to be our goal every week, to be as prepared as we can possibly be moving into the game.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau