Two ugly losses in a row for the Michigan State Spartans have left fans scratching their heads. How could they put together such a complete performance against the rival Michigan Wolverines, and then look completely different the next two weeks? It almost seems like the game against Michigan never even happened.
The Spartans are now 1-3 on the season, with some tough games coming up soon. Maryland looks to be improved from years past, Ohio State is, well, Ohio State, and Northwestern looks to have bounced back to become a contender again in the Big Ten West.
But for now, let’s take a look back at the takeaways from Saturday’s loss to the Hoosiers.
Defense Continues to Show Up
One of the biggest takeaways from Saturday is that the defense continues to be the strength of this team. While you may look at the box score and think I’m crazy for thinking the unit performed well, hear me out for a minute. For much of the first half, the offense put the defense in some pretty bad positions against a very talented Indiana offense. Prior to Saturday, Hoosier quarterback Michael Penix Jr. had thrown one interception on the season. The defense forced two picks in Saturday’s loss. This seems like a small factor, but in the loss to Iowa, the Spartans failed to force a single turnover. They were much better in that aspect this week and moving forward its something that MSU needs to keep improving on.
The defense also had some great stands in the second half against Indiana. The offense was stagnant for nearly all of the game, so the defense was on the field a considerable amount. Instead of being gassed and letting Indiana score late to ice the game, the defense kept fighting. The unit had some great fourth down stops in the red zone, an area where Indiana’s offense is particularly effective. If the Spartans can figure it out on offense, then the defense doesn’t have to work as hard by defending short fields as often and can really help shape this group into a top defense by the end of the year.
There Might Be Something Here With Payton Thorne
Michigan State fans got their first real glimpse at Payton Thorne on Saturday. Thorne saw some limited action against Iowa, but only threw one pass that fell incomplete. But, after Rocky Lombardi was pulled out late in the first half, Thorne stepped in to take control of the offense and immediately made an impact, taking a read option and slicing through the Indiana defense for 38 yards, showing off his speed and agility in the process.
Through the game, Thorne showed lots of promise as the Spartans’ quarterback. He never managed to finish drives, but in his first real action of his career, plus playing against such a talented defense, Thorne gave the Spartans just a little bit of life for their offense. The offense continued to make mistakes through the rest of the game with penalties and easy sacks, but Thorne flashed his potential.
In one specific instance, the offensive line had let a few Indiana defenders through the line, and Thorne, if he hadn’t reacted so quickly, would’ve been sacked for sure. But, Thorne showed off his ability to roll out and extend plays, and eventually found his former high school teammate and Spartan wide receiver Jayden Reed for 25 yards downfield. The ball was placed just right so Reed could tap his toes and stay in bounds to make the catch. It’s just a small glimpse of what he can do, and with a full week to prepare as the leader of the offense (assuming he starts moving forward), Thorne should show out even more in the weeks to come.
Mental Errors are the Achilles’ Heel
In Michigan State’s three losses, the biggest factor has been mental errors. The Spartans had plenty of strong, promising drives killed by mental errors. Whether it’s penalties, turnovers, or just poor execution on critical plays, MSU had plenty of drives that should’ve ended in points turn into punting situations or giveaways.
The Spartans seemed to have fixed the issue in their win against Michigan, but after their last two losses, it is clear that there’s some work to do. With some tougher games still remaining, the Spartans critically need to iron out the wrinkles and eliminate the mental mistakes.
The Running Game Needs an Overhaul
One of the biggest issues holding the Michigan State offense back is their running game. Through the first half of the regular season, the Spartans have been abysmal on the ground, averaging just 73.8 yards per game. That’s the second lowest average in the Big Ten Conference, just ahead of Purdue.
With a mobile quarterback like Payton Thorne, the Spartans have some options moving forward with the running game. Thorne has a lot of speed and can open up options in the running game with read options and quarterback keepers. If the Spartans can find an offensive line unit that can generate push, and find their main running back, then the running game can really open up with a combination of Thorne and Elijah Collins, Connor Heyward, or Jordon Simmons.
The bottom line is moving forward, the running game needs to improve, and that starts with the offensive line. The Spartans can’t rely on their passing game to carry them through the season.
Overall, despite the ugly looking losses by the Spartans, they’re not too far off from being a solid team. If Payton Thorne can be the guy the Spartans need right now, the defense continues to step up, and the team limits mental mistakes, MSU could surprise us as the season moves on. But there’s lots of work to be done to get there, and not a lot of time to do it. We’ll see how Michigan State responds against Maryland.