Michigan State football's offensive struggles started with spring disruptions
EAST LANSING — Payton Thorne grabbed a ball and began warming up on Michigan State football’s sideline after a fruitless three-and-out possession.
When the offense huddled during a timeout, however, starter Rocky Lombardi remained in the game. Thorne retreated to the sideline.
On the next play, Lombardi threw another interception. It was his last play of the day.
Thorne entered and ran for 38 yards on his first snap, showing the difference between the two quarterbacks — the veteran Lombardi is a deep-shot artist who has struggled with turnovers while the youngster Thorne is a dual threat signal-caller with all of four collegiate snaps going into Saturday’s game against No. 10 Indiana.
Neither of them could direct the MSU offense to a touchdown, though, as the Hoosiers dominated the discombobulated Spartans, 24-0, at Spartan Stadium.
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“It's obviously different than any other quarterback competition in the past,” said Thorne, who was 10-for-20 passing for 110 yards and an interception and finished with 25 yards rushing after a pair of sacks whittled down his total.
It is a crisis moment for coach Mel Tucker four games into his tenure, with an offense in complete chaos — unable to run the ball, struggling with turnovers and coming off consecutive blowout losses. And it is a turning point at the position that two weeks earlier appeared Lombardi’s for the season after back-to-back 300-plus-yard passing performances and an upset of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Lombardi has completed just 20 of 44 passes for 248 yards combined the past two weeks, with five interceptions and no touchdowns. Tucker benched his starter approximately 20 minutes in Saturday, after he threw two more picks, both into double coverage and both leading to scores for the Hoosiers (4-0), as they posted 17 points off three early MSU turnovers.
“We thought it was some decision-making early in the game in the first half and then Payton was the next man up, so we gave him an opportunity,” Tucker said. “It was as simple as that. We'll look at the film and we'll evaluate it more and we'll see what we need to do moving forward. But there's no position set in stone on this team, quarterback or any other.”
Saturday's shutout was the second in two seasons for the Spartans (1-3) — the other was a 38-0 shellacking last year at Wisconsin. It followed a 49-7 loss at Iowa last week, and the 66-point combined margin of defeat is the worst two-game stretch for the program since MSU lost by 68 combined points in the last game of the George Perles era in 1994 (to Penn State, 59-31) and dropped Nick Saban’s first game in 1995 (against Nebraska, 50-10).
“You see it, it's obvious — you turn the ball over and you have critical penalties against a good football team, you are going to get beat,” Tucker said. “That's what happened and we need to figure out what we can do with the guys that we have.”
MSU is scheduled to travel to Maryland next week, but the Terrapins remain in a program stoppage due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Kickoff time and TV coverage remains TBD.
Missing three starters from their secondary — starting cornerbacks Kalon Gervin and Chris Jackson and starting safety Tre Person — the Spartans’ defense needed their offense to sustain drives and allow them time to rest against Indiana’s speed spread attack featuring quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and a host of talent.
Instead, MSU’s first five drives were a mess, similar to Week 1's seven-turnover groaner against Rutgers.
Lombardi recovered his own fumble on a third-and-2 sneak attempt on the Spartans’ first possession, which ended in a punt. On the next possession, he threw his first interception, underthrowing Jayden Reed down the left side. The Hoosiers took over at midfield and scored on an 8-yard run by Stevie Scott III seven plays later.
Running back Anthony Williams Jr. fumbled on the Spartans’ second play of the ensuing drive, deep in MSU territory. It took just two plays for Penix to hit Ty Fryfogle for a 16-yard touchdown.
The Spartans' fourth possession ended in a three-and-out, rather than a turnover, and cornerback Shakur Brown got the ball back for MSU on an interception in the end zone, his second of the half. The Spartans took over on their own 15 after Brown's return, but Lombardi, trying to hit Reed on the first play, again threw an interception into double coverage. That gave the Hoosiers the ball at at MSU’s 25 and they turned it into a 21-yard Charles Campbell field goal.
That was all for Lombardi, pulled with 9:22 left in the second. He was 3-for-7 passing for 21 yards. Both of his turnovers came on the first play of drives, and he now has seven interceptions to five touchdowns in four games.
“Playing this game, you're not going to play lights-out every game. You're not going to have an All-American or all-conference type game, every game. You're gonna have an off day,” senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “And today, Rocky just had an off day, and it happens.”
Thorne — who got four snaps last week in his debut at Iowa — came in and ripped off a 38-yard run on an option keeper on his first play. But the offense continued to languish, though he and Reed, teammates in high school, showed some chemistry late.
“It was a nice to get in there and get some real action and be able to move the ball around a little bit,” Thorne said. “I wish I would have played a little bit better today, obviously, but it was a nice to get out there and get some snaps.”
MSU's expected quarterback competition between Lombardi, Thorne and third-year sophomore Theo Day — which was started then abandoned in the buildup to last year's Pinsripe Bowl — was further disrupted by the Spartans' February coaching change, March shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic and August Big Ten season postponement. And that lack of repetition has shown in the Spartans’ offensive play the first four weeks.
“We're inconsistent,” Tucker said. “We were inconsistent with both guys in there. We have some efficient plays, and then we were inefficient.”
The Spartans managed just 60 rushing yards, their third game with 60 of fewer yards this season. Indiana sacked Lombardi and Thorne four times as the Hoosiers outgained MSU, 436-191, and had 21 first downs to the Spartans' nine.
There were plenty of repeated refrains from a week earlier, and, really, from every other game except the win over Michigan. But Tucker now has the quarterback question to mull in addition to all the other pivotal personnel assessments needed over the next four weeks.
“One thing we are able to do because we are able to play is we are able to evaluate who we have and what they can do,” Tucker said, “and who wants to or has the ability to play the type of football we need to play here to be successful.”