Evanston, Ill. — The announcement didn’t come until just before kickoff on Friday night, but Payton Thorne knew more than a week before that he’d be Michigan State’s starting quarterback when the season opened at Northwestern.
The third-year junior had battled graduate transfer Anthony Russo throughout the spring and into preseason camp, doing his best to prove to coach Mel Tucker that he deserved the job, despite having started just once compared to 26 times for Russo.
It appeared to be the right choice from Tucker, who told Thorne late last week but didn’t reveal his choice publicly until his program radio show on Friday night.
“I just was able to put my head down and go to work,” Thorne said of the process. “And, fortunately, the coaches saw something in me that that they thought could produce for our offense. So I’m happy with this decision, obviously, and I can’t wait to keep rolling.”
On a night when Kenneth Walker III stole the show by rushing for 264 yards and four touchdowns to lead Michigan State to a 38-21 victory, Thorne was allowed some time to get into a rhythm and not be forced to make too many big plays.
The result was a game that was far from spectacular but one that was exactly what the Spartans needed — 15-for-26 passing for 185 yards and one touchdown with 28 yards rushing. And the most vital stat for Thorne was zero turnovers. He consistently made good decisions with the ball while extending plays by being nimble in the pocket.
It wasn’t quite as electric as Thorne’s starting debut when he threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns last year against Penn State. But it was impressive.
Offensive line shines
Michigan State has been running the ball the past few seasons. They were dominant on Friday, and much of that had to do with the play of the offensive line.
It’s a group that has taken plenty of heat, and for good reason. Last season Michigan State averaged less than 100 yards a game on the ground and the 264 yards Walker gained on Friday was more than any running back had all of last season.
“Yeah, I know they’re excited,” Thorne said of the offensive line. “They did their thing tonight and I think it was a good statement for them to come out here and run the ball the way we did. And I thought they were good in pass protection, too. I really don’t remember getting hit too many times. So I thought that they had a really good night.”
The Spartans also didn’t just go with their starting five, something they did for most of last season. Jarrett Horst and AJ Arcuri started at the tackle spots with J.D. Duplain and Kevin Jarvis at guard and Matt Allen at center. There was plenty of rotating throughout the game as Nick Samac saw plenty of work at center while Blake Bueter and Matt Carrick also played guard. Luke Campbell also played both tackle spots until late in the game, with MSU up 17. Several of the younger linemen got in, as well.
Fresh faces on defense
Several players on defense got their first career starts, including a pair of redshirt freshmen — defensive tackle Simeon Barrow and linebacker Cal Haladay.
The Spartans also rotated plenty of players along the defensive line and linebacker as five different players got in at linebacker, six defensive tackles played and at least six ends played. Where there wasn’t much shuffling was in the secondary. Safeties Xavier Henderson and Angelo Grose as well as cornerbacks Kalon Gervin and Ronald Williams saw most of the snaps while starting nickel Michael Dowell was spelled by Darius Snow.
“You’ll see new faces in there,” Henderson said, “and dudes getting their shot to show what they’ve got.”