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It’s Michigan State’s defense vs. Jeff Thorne’s Western Michigan offense in Friday’s season opener

The Spartans will face Payton Thorne’s dad this Friday. Who will come out on top?

2019 NCAA Division III Football Championship
Western Michigan offensive coordinator Jeff Thorne while serving as head coach for North Central College
Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The Michigan State Spartans enter the third year of the Mel Tucker-era as the 2022 season kicks off on Friday night. MSU fans’ spirits are high, and should be given last season’s success and the university’s decision to “Stripes The Stadium” for the season opener against the Western Michigan Broncos.

In Tucker’s second season, Michigan State went 11-2, with losses to Ohio State and Purdue. At times, MSU looked a lot worse than its record indicated. The Spartans narrowly escaped Nebraska after a lucky special teams play. Michigan seemed to fold when faced with MSU’s toughest weapon, Heisman candidate Kenneth Walker III. Then there’s Penn State, which had every opportunity to beat Michigan State in its last game of the season, but didn’t. Maybe that’s a James Franklin-centered op-ed piece for Black Shoe Diaries.

Teams to defeat Michigan State in 2021 exploited its biggest weakness: a horrid pass defense. The Spartans allowed more yards than any other FBS team last season. Purdue, which failed to run the ball, passed on nearly every single down, yet got away with it. The result was 536 yards through the air on the back of quarterback Aidan O’Connell.

A couple of weeks later, Ohio State freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud lit up MSU’s pass defense to the tune of 432 yards and six touchdowns. Almost 400 of those yards came in the first half alone, as Stroud didn’t even play in the fourth quarter.

The biggest storyline of the season will answer one question: can redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne rise up? How much has he improved in the past year? We’ll find that out as the season progresses, I’m sure.

The more intriguing storyline to follow this week is regarding how Michigan State’s defense has improved from last season

The Broncos are not the most explosive team offensively, but Western Michigan is introducing new offensive coordinator in Jeff Thorne, Payton Thorne’s dad. Jeff comes to Kalamazoo after spending seven years at Division III’s North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. His first challenge is to replace quarterback Kaleb Eleby, who graduated last season.

Western Michigan, with Eleby at the helm, is coming off of its best season under head coach Tim Lester. The Broncos finished 8-5 last year with a road victory against Michigan State’s Peach Bowl opponent, Pittsburgh. WMU won the QuickLane Bowl at Ford Field against Nevada.

At the quarterback spot, Western Michigan is going with redshirt freshman Jack Salopek. While he doesn’t have the zip that Eleby had, Salopek has pinpoint accuracy. If Western Michigan wants to win, maybe taking Purdue’s 2021 approach will be suitable; execute plays designed heavily on screens and short passes to drive the ball downfield.

While it is true that Michigan State was lucky in many of its victories last season, it’s also true that Tucker has installed a winning culture in East Lansing. The Nebraska victory, the comeback against Michigan and the resiliency overall to play until the very end of each game, were the results of a culture that asks every player to compete every single time.

Over the summer, Tucker asked, “why not us?” He certainly believes Michigan State can win a national championship. Finding out if the defense can compete will go a long way into making that a reality.

Game Info

Time: Friday (Sept. 2) at 7 p.m. Eastern Time
TV Channel: ESPN2
Location: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan

This article was updated Thursday night to reflect the fact ESPN moved the Western Michigan-Michigan State game to ESPN2.