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Michigan State's Payton Thorne embraces 'interesting ride' in return to Penn State

East Lansing — When Payton Thorne takes the field Saturday at Beaver Stadium, things will have come full circle for the Michigan State quarterback.

It was on that field, two years ago, that Thorne got his first start under center for the Spartans, sparking a first-half run that included three touchdown passes for the redshirt freshman as Michigan State took a 21-10 halftime lead over Penn State. Things shifted dramatically in the second half, however, and the home team pulled away for a 39-24 victory as the piped-in crowd noise echoed off the empty seats, a fitting close to a bizarre 2020 season.

Two years later, Thorne is getting ready to return, though his supporting cast has seen some changes and the expectations have shifted, as well.

“It’s been an interesting ride,” Thorne said. “There’s been a lot of different things that have happened in that timeframe. It feels like a long time ago in a way, but it also doesn’t feel like that long ago. I look back on the journey and there’s been a lot of cool things that have happened, a lot of great experiences I’ve been able to have and I’ve gained experience.

“I’ve got time under my belt now. A lot of different guys have come and gone and I’ve made a lot of memories between that time and now, so, looking to make more here in the future.”

That first start was an odd one, to say the least.

Michigan State was playing what would amount to its final game that season, one that consisted of only seven games in the COVID-shortened year. Rocky Lombardi started the first six games, but injuries led to Thorne getting the call, though he had to figure it out on his own during the week of practice.

“I don't think I ever actually had a conversation with anybody about starting, to be honest,” Thorne said. “I just kind of started taking reps that week. … I was just kind of noticing, ‘All right, I'm with the ones here in this drill and I’m with the ones here in this one. I'm taking the first rep of every period.’ So I’m like, ‘OK, well, I think I'm starting.’”

Thorne did, indeed, start the game and was outstanding, throwing for 325 yards and three scores with one interception. His 325 yards were the most by a Michigan State quarterback in their first start and had Spartans fans feeling optimistic about the future of the position.

“There wasn't a single person in the stadium, and it was still loud, though,” Thorne said. “I mean, holy cow they had those speakers going.

“It was fun. It was a cool experience for me and something that I've dreamt about for a long time to be able to play in front of that many people, but there was nobody there, but the music made it made it fun still.”

There’s little doubting what fun would mean this time around and that’s a win. Not just for the sake of winning a game, of course, but what it would mean for the season. To say Michigan State has had an up-and-down year would be an understatement and the Spartans need the victory to become bowl eligible.

But going out with one more solid game would mean plenty for Thorne, too.

He’s surely seen the highs and lows in his two seasons as Michigan State’s starting quarterback. He was at the helm last year as Michigan State surprised nearly everyone, winning 11 games and playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Thorne himself had a big year, throwing for a program-record 27 touchdowns.

Of course, things haven’t come as easily this season. The team’s struggles have been well-documented and after it seemed like the Spartans had righted the ship, last week’s epic collapse to Indiana brought the momentum to a screeching halt.

It came as Thorne played one of his best games in what can best be described as an inconsistent season. He threw for 289 yards and two touchdowns and led the offense to a season-high 540 total yards.

“He played extremely well last week,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson said of Thorne. “I thought I began to see things in the pass game where he was working through different progressions. I thought he saw the field really well and did a tremendous job and how he manages us offensively is at a really high level. I think he battled through some adversity early and he’s continued to climb. I feel like in these last three or four weeks he’s starting to play at a newer level and has developed.”

The numbers aren’t as good this season for Thorne overall, but they’re not that far off even as the running game has been inconsistent, making it tougher to have offensive balance. He’s completing 63.3% of his passes, which is higher than last season, but his yards per game are down and he’s at 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions now and finished with 27 and 10 last year.

Still, Thorne enters Saturday’s game confident he’s in a good place.

“I think that this year in a whole I’m a better player than I was last year,” Thorne said. “The stats may not reflect that but I know that I’m a better player now than I was a year ago. That comes down to processing things quickly. I feel like I’m seeing the defense well right now and getting to the right plays. I felt like the past few weeks it’s been getting better and better.

“Sometimes the stats don’t always reflect that for one reason or another. There’s a lot of other things that aren’t on the stat sheet, too. You’ve really got to watch the game and understand what’s happening to understand those things.”

Johnson stopped short this week of saying Thorne will continue to be the starter next season by saying there’s always competition as he praised the recent play of redshirt sophomore Noah Kim and freshman Katin Houser.

But there’s no doubt it’s Thorne’s team now and he’ll be looking to rekindle some of the magic he had early in his last trip to Beaver Stadium and move the Spartans past last week’s disappointment.

“It will be a good challenge for us,” Thorne said. “We can't be worrying about Indiana. There's nothing we can do about it now except improve on things that we weren't very good at and build on the things that we did do well. So we’ve got to move forward and play our best at Penn State and give ourselves a chance to have another game.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau