Michigan State is just one win away from a second-straight bowl season appearance under head coach Mel Tucker after beating Rutgers by a final score of 27-21 in East Lansing on Saturday. It was a solid outing, and Michigan State has some late-season momentum after winning three of its last four games, with the lone loss to a top-five Michigan team in Ann Arbor.
Let’s get right into this week’s takeaways.
Payton Thorne is slowly looking like his old self, but is still inconsistent
I was really excited to see quarterback Payton Thorne play heading into the 2022 season. He set a new school record last year for passing touchdowns in a season with 27 (with Kenneth Walker III as his running back, mind you), and with Jayden Reed returning for another season wide receiver, Thorne was set to have a great year.
But, he looked off to start the year. He just couldn’t connect on a lot of the impressive throws he made last year. He got rattled and banged up early, and never looked like the Payton Thorne we saw last season.
Some will disagree here, but as of recently, Thorne has started to look a bit like his old self, and that continued Saturday against Rutgers. He still missed on some throws he should’ve had, and his play this season has been inconsistent overall, but he made up for it with some clutch throws down the stretch. The 25-yard connection to Jayden Reed on that post route, between two defenders, was easily one of his best throws this year.
Thorne finished the game 19-of-35 for 256 passing yards with two touchdowns and zero turnovers. It was statistically his best game since MSU’s double overtime win against Wisconsin.
Thorne has been highly scrutinized for his play this season, including after Saturday’s performance. Some of the criticism of Thorne has been overblown, and some of it is perfectly fair. While he still has some things to clean up (particularly with his accuracy and touch on throws), he’s been inching closer each week to getting back to the quarterback the Spartans need him to be if they want to compete at a high level. It’s unfortunate it couldn’t have happened sooner, but if he can keep improving over the final two weeks of the season, there’s reason for some optimism heading into 2023.
Special teams seem to be improving
I have consistently mentioned Michigan State’s special teams woes in my takeaways every week, mostly because it’s been a consistent problem every week. However, this week was different.
The Spartans made two field goals this week, doubling their season total heading into the game from two to four. It sounds a bit odd to be complimenting a team for making only four field goals on the year, but considering just how bad the kicking game has been this season, two field goals in one game seemed like an impossible feat just a week or two ago.
Despite the struggles the field goal unit has had this season — including issues with both snapping and kicking — Tucker trusted kicker Ben Patton to come in and make two clutch field goals in the fourth quarter. Patton drilled a 34-yarder and an impressive 48-yarder, and the Spartans won by six points.
Meanwhile, Bryce Baringer continues to establish himself as the top punter in the country.
(Side note: that is the most Big Ten Football sentence I have ever written. Moving on.)
Rutgers is one of the top teams in the country at blocking punts, and the Scarlet Knights nearly got to Baringer on one of them. But, after bobbling the snap, with a defender in his face, he booted a punt for 64 yards and the Spartans downed it at Rutgers’ 4-yard-line. That could’ve easily gone wrong for the MSU, and would’ve just been another botched special teams play to add to the file for this year, but Baringer managed to still get the play off.
Additionally, defensive tackle Jacob Slade blocked a field goal attempt from Rutgers late in the game.
I’m not sure what changed, and maybe this game was an outlier, but it was certainly the Spartans’ best game on special teams all season.
It’s time to handle business
Thorne spoke to the media earlier in the week and mentioned that everyone in the locker room wants to end the season the right way, sending the seniors off with a bowl game, and, ideally, a bowl win. If that’s the case, the Spartans need to handle business these last two games of the year. The good news is, being just one win short of making it to the six-win benchmark to guarantee the bowl bid, it’s an entirely reachable goal for MSU — especially with a struggling Indiana team up next for senior day.
However, we’ve seen Michigan State come out flat plenty of times this season. It’s important that the Spartans don’t get too comfortable with their recent success. Late in the game on Saturday, Michigan State had the opportunity to ice the game late with a score, but got a little sloppy, and Rutgers made the game a little too close for comfort toward the end.
The Spartans need to continue to build off the successes from the last few weeks and execute next week. The last thing MSU needs is a back-breaking loss to Indiana on senior day before a trip to Happy Valley to keep bowl dreams alive against a highly-ranked Penn State team.
The turnaround the Spartans have had in this second half of the season has been impressive. Snapping that long losing-streak after the win over Wisconsin a month ago, beating a ranked Illinois team on the road down eight players due to suspensions, and continuing that success on Saturday to keep bowl hopes alive is something that Michigan State should be proud of.
It would’ve been easy to throw in the towel after the four-game losing streak. It would’ve been easy to stumble into Illinois after the loss to Michigan and lose to the Illini with several players out of the lineup. But, the Spartans have weathered the adversity this season, and while they’re not playing for a title like they hoped to start the year, managing to save what seemed like a sinking ship in October and be playing for a bowl game at this point is a victory.
Michigan State will take on the Indiana Hoosiers for the Old Brass Spittoon on senior day next week. Kickoff is set for noon Eastern Time on the Big Ten Network.