New Michigan State football starting QB Payton Thorne gives himself an 'OK' grade

EVANSTON, Ill. — Payton Thorne learned more than a week ago he would be Michigan State football’s starting quarterback at Northwestern.

The Spartans got an efficient performance from the sophomore Friday night, going 15 of 26 for 185 yards and a touchdown in their 38-21 season-opening victory at Ryan Field on Friday night.

Michigan State Spartans running back Kenneth Walker III (9) and quarterback Payton Thorne (10) react after a play against the Northwestern Wildcats during the fourth quarter at Ryan Field on Friday Sept. 3, 2021.
Michigan State Spartans running back Kenneth Walker III (9) and quarterback Payton Thorne (10) react after a play against the Northwestern Wildcats during the fourth quarter at Ryan Field on Friday Sept. 3, 2021.

Thorne beat out Anthony Russo for the starting job after a battle that began when the Temple grad transfer arrived in January. That came after Thorne played in four games last season, setting a freshman record with 325 passing yards in his lone start during season-ending loss at Penn State.

His assessment of his own performance Friday?

“I thought I played OK,” Thorne said. “Honestly, obviously, I'm really happy about the win. I definitely missed a few things that we can capitalize on that I think could have made the game a little bit larger of a margin.”

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne runs with the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., Friday, Sept. 3, 2021.
Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne runs with the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., Friday, Sept. 3, 2021.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound native of nearby Naperville, Illinois, also ran five times for 28 yards. Thorne was sacked once and evaded pressure a number of other times, but he most importantly did not throw an interception and operated as a game-manager rather than a downfield risk-taker.

“I thought he had a solid night,” coach Mel Tucker said. “He ran the show. … He was competing like crazy there. He just kept playing for the next play, kept playing for the next play. And for the most part, we were able to take care of football, and that's something that he's done the entire camp. And that's important.”

Thorne completed 5 of 6 passes to start the game, including a 20-yard 50-50 ball his former Naperville Central High teammate Jayden Reed elevated and pulled in to set up the second of Kenneth Walker III’s four rushing touchdowns.

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Then early in the second quarter, Thorne threw disguised a well-timed screen pass to running back Jordon Simmons that the sophomore running back took 14 yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter.

Then on MSU’s first drive of the third quarter, after a second missed field goal by Northwestern kicker Charlie Kuhbander, Thorne again found a rhythm and connected on five straight passes to four different receivers as part of a 11-play, 80-yard drive. Walker’s third touchdown gave the Spartans a 28-7 cushion.

“I feel like he did a great job,” Walker said of Thorne. “He's a great leader, he's a great athlete. And he knows what he's doing. I'm very confident, and I know everybody else on the team is, too.”

MSU outgained Northwestern, 511-396, in beating Pat Fitzgerald for the second straight year under Tucker after losing three straight and four of the last five under Mark Dantonio.

Russo, who started 26 games the past three years at Temple, did not play. MSU’s third quarterback was redshirt freshman Noah Kim.

Defense revamped

Northwestern tight end Charlie Mangieri is unable to stay inbounds as he reaches for the ball in front of Michigan State safety Xavier Henderson during the second quarter on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Evanston, Illinois.
Northwestern tight end Charlie Mangieri is unable to stay inbounds as he reaches for the ball in front of Michigan State safety Xavier Henderson during the second quarter on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Evanston, Illinois.

MSU’s defense showed a bend-but-don’t break mindset for much of the game. And they showed off some newfound depth.

The Spartans rotated six defensive tackles, as well as five linebackers and five defensive ends. That was both to keep them fresh and playing at a peak level, but also because Tucker felt good about their talent in earning their snaps.

“The more players you have to have a role on the team, the better your morale is going to be,” Tucker said. “But we give them opportunities in practice to earn those roles. If you step on the field, in our minds, you're a starter.”

Tucker did not use as much depth in the back of the defense. Cornerbacks Kalon Gervin and Ronald Williams, along with safeties Xavier Henderson and Angelo Grose were fixtures. Michael Dowell and Darius Snow switched on and off at nickel back.

Grose and Henderson, who got a sack on a safety blitz up the middle, each had nine tackles while Gervin had eight.

Northwestern quarterback Hunter Johnson threw for 283 yards on 30 of 43 passing with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Gervin and Williams each gave up a 40-plus yard pass in the first quarter in single coverage and the Wildcats also got another run of 47 yards on the first play of the second half. However, Henderson and Williams got two of the Spartans’ three sacks.

“We were able to stop them in the red zone, which is big time,” Henderson said of Northwestern’s first two drives. “That's just playing the next play. We're not too worried about the play before.”

Tennessee transfer Quavaris Crouch got a second-half sack after starting next to sophomore Cal Haladay at linebacker. Chase Kline and Michigan transfer Ben VanSumeren backed them up, with 2020 starter Noah Harvey getting most of his work in goal-line defense situations.

“If you're out there, you're a starter, and standard for performances is the same — it's very high — and we expect you to execute and play winning football. So we have more players that can do that, but we're still looking to get more guys involved.”

Roster notes

Running back Harold Joiner III left the game after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit with 4:47 to play, but there was no targeting called on the play after a booth review. Joiner walked to the medical tent on MSU’s sideline under his own power after trainers examined the Auburn transfer neck, and he did not return.

The Spartans got defensive tackle Jacob Slade back, but he did not start and played with a club on his injured right hand. Redshirt freshman Simeon Barrow, who also had a green wrap on his right hand, got the start next to Jalen Hunt. Hunt also left the game with an apparent foot injury.

Freshman linebacker Ma’a Gaoteote also was in uniform after missing the Meet the Spartans event.

Two transfers did not make the trip, tight end Maliq Carr and defensive back Khary Crump. Other notables who were not among the 74 Spartans in uniform included DB C.J. Hayes, QB Hamp Fay, WR Ricky White, RB Davion Primm, DE Brandon Wright, S AJ Kirk, TE Adam Berghorst and DE Avery Dunn.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football QB Payton Thorne: I played OK at Northwestern

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