On Saturday, the Michigan State Spartans fell to the Maryland Terrapins for the team’s third-straight loss. It was just the third time the Spartans have lost to the Terrapins in the series history, and the second time since Maryland joined the Big Ten.
It wasn’t quite as ugly as the last two weeks, but it’s clear the Spartans still have quite a bit of work to do as we move into the second month of the season. Let’s get into the takeaways.
Payton Thorne’s struggles need to be addressed
I’ve said it in my other takeaway pieces this season. I’ve been a fan of quarterback Payton Thorne for a long time. I thought he was poised for a big season in 2022 after he broke the school record for passing touchdowns in a single season in 2021.
But he’s had an up-and-down start to this season — and mostly down if we are being honest. He didn’t necessarily have a “bad” performances in Week One against Western Michigan, but he certainly didn’t look like what we thought he would, as he missed several throws. Then, against an awful Akron team. Thorne threw two interceptions. He looked a bit better against Washington, leading a late surge before ultimately falling short in the end. He struggled for a season-low in passing yards (132) against Minnesota last week, though, and threw two interceptions and fumbled in that game.
This past game against Maryland, he started sharp. He began the game by comleting his first six passes and helped the Spartans move the ball early, something that had been a problem for MSU in the previous two games. But, his second half — and especially late-game — performance were a lot like the issues we had seen earlier this year. In his last series, trying to lead a comeback and punch in a late touchdown, Thorne looked a bit off, like he did early this season. He over-sailed two throws to open receivers that both would have been touchdowns before scrambling and running out of bounds for a gain of six on fourth-down-and-10 in a must-score situation.
I’m not saying Thorne isn’t the guy for Michigan State, or that he should be benched. There’s a reason he’s gotten the start over other options in the quarterback room. But it’s clear something is wrong and it needs to be addressed with some urgency. The Spartans are now (barring a miracle) knocked out of the Big Ten title race, but if they want to try and at least get to six wins and a bowl game, or even try and sneak in an upset in the next few weeks, they’re going to need to figure out whatever that issue is as soon as possible.
The defense started slow but finished...dare we say better?
Starting this game, it looked to be a repeat of the Minnesota game from a week before. Two drives on defense and two touchdowns were given up. But, as the game went on, the Spartans started to switch things up on defense, and it worked. Michigan State only allowed six points in the second half, a massive effort against a very talented offense after how easily the game could’ve gotten out of hand and the performances the defense has had the two previous weeks.
In the second half, the Spartans were able to get some pressure on Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, and as a result, he made some inaccurate throws and Michigan State started to get off the field. MSU even got its first sack since the Akron game (technically by defensive tackle Simeon Barrow, although it was more of Tagovailoa stumble for a loss of yardage) .
It wasn’t pretty, but the Spartans managed to hold a talented offense to just the aforementioned six points in the first half after allowing 21 in the first half. It would’ve been easy to allow it to get out of hand in the second half, but MSU didn’t. That goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter that kept Maryland from icing the game was very impressive, and I think it shows that there are signs of life in this struggling defense. (And I should note, the Michigan defense also held the Terrapins to 27 points a week ago. Just some food for thought, you know?)
To be fair, Michigan State still allowed 489 total yards, which is way too much. But the improvement compared to the past two weeks was visible. In the future, the defense needs to find the success it had in the second half on Saturday from the opening kickoff instead of starting in the third quarter. I’d also like to see the Spartans force some more turnovers. That was something they were doing consistently the first two weeks, but haven’t really done all that well since. In fact, five games into the season, MSU is still yet to record a single interception.
With a matchup with C.J. Stroud and the Ohio State offense on the clock, the Spartans certainly has their work cut out for them.
Correcting issues on special teams needs to be a priority going forward
This one is huge, and while it wouldn’t have necessarily won the Spartans the game on Saturday, if some of the mishaps on special teams hadn’t happened, Michigan State would have been looking at a much different game coming into the second half. After the Spartans scored their second touchdown to cut the lead to 14-13, the extra point was missed due to a botched snap but Hank Pepper, preserving a one-point Maryland lead. Prior to that, kicker Ben Patton missed a 33-yard field goal attempt for the Spartans.
Then, after giving up a touchdown late in the first half, the Spartans marched the ball down the field to try and attempt a field goal to cut the halftime deficit to 21-16. Jack Stone’s kick was blocked after a Maryland defender came in unblocked and the Spartans came up empty. Those mistakes wiped seven total points off of the board.
Mistakes like that have already and will continue to kill the Spartans this season, and if they want to make the most out of the remainder of the season, these mistakes need to be cleaned up going forward.
Michigan State has shown some glimpses of the team’s potential. That goal-line stand by the defense, the throws in-stride to open receivers, beautiful goal-line fades for touchdowns and the occasional big run make me think that the pieces are there. Now, it’s just a matter of making them click at the same time.
The Spartans have a brutal remainder of a schedule for October, with the Ohio State Buckeyes and Wisconsin Badgers visiting Spartan Stadium in the next two weeks before a trip to Ann Arbor to try and defend the Paul Bunyan trophy against the Michigan Wolverines to close out the month.
The losing streak hurts, but it’s time for the Spartans to put in some work and try and make the most of the remainder of the season. In 2021, Michigan State vastly exceeded expectations and seemed ahead of schedule in the rebuild of the program, but with the start of this season, we’ve quickly been reminded just how much work this is going to take.
It’s time to be patient, ride out the rest of the season, and see what happens.