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Should Michigan State be concerned about Payton Thorne heading into Washington?

Thorne is struggling coming into Michigan State’s first Power Five matchup of the 2022 season. Is it time to worry?

Akron v Michigan State Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

So far, in Michigan State’s 2022 campaign, the team has faced two subpar Mid-American Conference opponents: Western Michigan and Akron.

Redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne will be the first to tell you that he hasn’t played up to his standards so far this season.

In the first game against the Broncos, Thorne completed just 12 of 24 pass attempts and threw for 233 yards. He also threw an interception. If not for Thorne’s four touchdown passes in Week One, his play would have really lackluster against WMU.

MSU’s game against Akron tells a different story. While Michigan State did actually win the game by a final score of 52-0, 28 of those points were scored following Akron turnovers. Akron had no problem moving the football down the field early in the game.

That doesn’t rest with Thorne, but it does make MSU fans a bit nervous, as the team’s upcoming opponent (Washington) could hand Michigan State its first loss of the season. Against Akron, Thorne completed 18 of 28 pass attempts, threw for 212 yards and two interceptions. He also sailed balls high and missed throws he should have hit, similar to the game versus Western Michigan. Thorne has been only sacked twice through two games.

This week, Michigan State heads out to Seattle to play the Washington Huskies, also coming off of two wins against subpar opponents. If you ask me, a win against a legitimate opponent like MSU could give Washington its first Associated Press Poll ranking of the season. The Huskies received six votes in this week’s Coaches’ Poll.

Let’s start with what’s true: there is some concern with Thorne’s play. In our Film Room this week, The Only Colors’ film analyst Chase Glasser mostly focused on MSU’s defense against Akron, however he set aside some time to discuss Thorne.

In it, he mentioned:

Frustratingly, (Thorne) generally identifies the right person to throw to, but sometimes sails the throw. I don’t see anything schematic to process, as his issues appear either mental or mechanical. Some people more observant than myself have observed a lead shoulder dip, which could cause inaccuracy – I don’t doubt the veracity of that observation, but am not schooled in the finer aspects of throwing mechanics. I can say that Thorne looks uncomfortable in the pocket, and has happy feet. It is something to look at going forward.

It looks like Thorne’s issues are mostly fixable. In one interception, it appears he didn’t even see the linebacker there.

Payton Thorne versus Washington’s defense

Last season, Washington’s defense was middle-of-the-road in most categories. One area in which the Huskies did excel was in the passing game. Washington had the No. 1 passing defense last season. It also forced interceptions more than 10 percent of the time, while executing a turnover margin that was ninth in FBS.

Though Washington’s defense ranked No. 1 in pass defense last season, it did lose two defensive backs — Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon — to the NFL. Both were taken in the first 39 picks to the Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears, respectively. Washington has a chance to win its division this season, but because of its offense rather than defense.

Washington’s defense forced three turnovers, all interceptions, against its first 2022 opponent, Kent State. That includes an interception on the Golden Flashes’ quarterback Collin Schlee’s first pass attempt of the game. Portland State, however, was able to finish the game against Washington without a turnover. The Vikings did lose 52-6, though.

This season, Washington is allowing 4.96 yards per pass attempt — ranking seventh in FBS. Michigan State, primarily with Thorne, is No. 75 in yards per pass attempt with 8.23. This is a big opportunity for Thorne to get back on track. That’s not to say that Thorne has been absolutely horrible. He played better against Western Michigan than he did against Akron. With that said, his deep passes were slightly more accurate than they were against Western Michigan.

I’ve also been of the opinion that Michigan State offensive coordinator Jay Johnson is partially to blame for Thorne’s lack of prowess. It seems as though MSU is trying to force bigger plays, which leads Thorne into low-percentage deep throws. There have also been several miscommunications with receivers.

Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal even mentioned it in an earlier article this week. However, the part I liked most about Couch’s piece was his observation that none of those were intended for redshirt senior receiver Jayden Reed.

With everything said, backup quarterback Noah Kim’s performance against Akron was a nice reminder that there is a competent backup at-hand. But if MSU is actually going to consider Kim as a replacement for Thorne, this will be a tough season. Thorne is clearly the better quarterback and it would be hard to replace him.

Saying Michigan State should ditch Thorne for Kim mid-season is an overreaction. Remember when Michigan fans wanted J.J. McCarthy to replace Cade McNamara? Well, that idea didn’t pan out too well against Michigan State when McCarthy fumbled the ball resulting in a costly turnover.

Thorne still has time to figure things out, and likely will. Head coach Mel Tucker said he’s “not concerned” about Thorne’s play.

Like Michigan State, Washington has yet to face an FBS opponent from a major conference. So it’s hard to identify each team’s true identity. MSU looks better than Washington from what I’ve seen, but anyone’s guess is as good as mine when it comes to who will actually come out on top in Saturday’s game.

Washington opened as a three-point betting favorite this week. However, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Michigan State holds a slight advantage, given a 54 percent chance to win.

The game airs on ABC at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday.