MSU QB Rocky Lombardi on his first start The Detroit News
East Lansing — Mark Dantonio is about to face a difficult decision when it comes to his football team.
While deciding on who starts at right tackle might be as important, the choice the Michigan State coach will ultimately have to make regarding who is the starting quarterback will be the one everyone is paying attention to — and likely the one Dantonio is sweating.
It might be made for him this week as Michigan State prepares to head to Maryland on Saturday for a noon kickoff with the Terrapins. Junior Brian Lewerke is battling a shoulder injury that might keep him out for a second straight week, meaning the easy choice would be to go with redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi.
The difficulty comes when Lewerke is 100 percent. With the way Lombardi played in last week’s victory over Purdue — 318 yards passing with two touchdowns — there is no reason to rush Lewerke. And if Lombardi keeps building on an impressive debut, it will be hard to take him out.
Dantonio isn’t offering any hints and said he won’t draw anything from the last time there was a question at quarterback — early in the 2013 season when Connor Cook eventually took over for Andrew Maxwell.
“Not at all. I don't think there's any comparison,” Dantonio said. “I think that Brian Lewerke has established himself with a great foundation. He won 10 games last year and a couple games where he threw for over 400 yards. He has established himself and has a huge foundation in which to build on and stand on and he's been he selected by captain by his teammates. There's a lot of substance he brought that in 2013 that we didn't have.
“Rocky did an outstanding job and put himself in a situation where he can be a starter or inserted into the game or whatever it is, but from where I sit, it's a good problem. I thought he did a very good job in the game and asserted himself and gives us another leader on this football team.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio talks about the challenges Maryland presents and his team's quarterback situation heading into this weekend. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Until Lewerke is 100 percent, however, it’s clear that Lombardi is the guy under center. He added a spark to the offense that hasn’t been present for much of the season and after the game his teammates showed their support, chanting “Rocky, Rocky” as he came in the locker room.
“It was awesome,” Lombardi said of the celebration. “It was one of the cooler moments that I’ve had in my life so far.”
Michigan State (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) is hoping for plenty more moments from the redshirt freshman, including this week when the Spartans travel to Maryland to take on the Terrapins.
While he wasn’t perfect against Purdue — Lombardi finished 26-for-46 — there were some tight throws and some opportunities missed. Lombardi noticed several as he was in early on Sunday to watch the film and was kicking himself for what might have been.
“Hit the deep balls for sure,” Lombardi said. “That stood out to me and it’s something I did well in high school. I noticed it on film and if I could have hit some of those shots we were five, six plays away from putting up a lot of points. That’s one thing, and sell the run fake, also. I was lazy on that. I was just a little excited.”
While Lombardi admitted there were some nerves — like when he messed up the snap count and earned a false-start penalty — the moment didn’t overwhelm him. In fact, it didn’t take long for Lombardi to feel right at home.
“It was my first snap, really,” Lombardi said. “When I went out there and looked around and was like, ‘Man, this is it. This is what I’ve worked for my whole life.’ It was pretty special moment to go out there on the first play. And as soon as the game was over and with my teammates in the locker room … It’s awesome and that’s a good experience.”
MSU safety Khari Willis on facing Maryland The Detroit News
The next step for Lombardi is having the same sort of experience on the road. A freshman hasn’t started a road game for Michigan State since Lewerke did in 2016 at, of all places, Maryland.
It’s clearly just a coincidence, but the fact Lewerke has been there to help Lombardi through the process has been valuable, Lombardi said.
“He’s been awesome,” Lombardi said of Lewerke. “He’s one of my best friends. We hang out every day in the quarterback room and hang out on weekends. He’s been a huge help to me as a football player and as a friend.”
Who eventually ends up as the quarterback for the long term remains to be seen. Lombardi’s first opportunity would back up Dantonio’s assertion that deciding between the two is a “good problem.” After all, Lewerke did have the second-most total yards in program history last season despite some of his struggles this season.
For now, though, Lombardi will keep watching film, keep critiquing himself and play the same way he has his whole life.
“I’m pretty confident,” he said. “I thought I was confident going into Purdue. I try to play with confidence and throw with conviction every time out there. I do gain confidence going in there and playing. The confidence level is still high, like it was Saturday.”