East Lansing – Michigan State has one primary goal when it faces Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl – win the game and avoid a sub-.500 record.
It won’t deliver the Spartans a championship they hoped for back in August and it won’t wipe away what can only be described as a disappointing season, but the win would at least give Michigan State a positive feeling heading into an uncertain off-season.
While most of that uncertainty surrounds Mark Dantonio and his plans for his coaching staff, the Spartans also find themselves about to embark on another quarterback competition. Fifth-year senior Brian Lewerke is getting set to start his 38th career game on Friday at Yankee Stadium, and after three years at the helm, Michigan State needs to find his replacement.
The matchup with the Demon Deacons could offer a chance to see the beginning of the competition that will likely take place between sophomore Rocky Lombardi, redshirt freshman Theo Day and freshman Payton Thorne.
How much any of those three see the field is, of course, dependent upon that primary objective.
“The goal is to win the football game,” Dantonio said. “So we'll see where that takes us. I would love to play another one because that would mean we're getting goal No. 1, job one.”
Still, part of bowl preparation and even the game is about looking to the future. Michigan State (6-6) will have plenty of holes to fill next season – primarily on the defensive side of the ball – and young players get far more opportunity in bowl practice to prove they’re ready for a larger role.
Seeing some of that in the actual game is also critical, especially at the quarterback spot where Lombardi has served as the primary backup to Lewerke each of the past two seasons. Lombardi has appeared in eight games in each of the past two seasons, starting three in 2018 when Lewerke was injured.
While Lombardi hasn’t locked down the starting job for next season, he’s at least seen extended action. Day has appeared in two games this season and thrown three passes while Thorne has yet to see the field.
“I think what we look for right now is to give them opportunities to play meaningful snaps, especially like Payton Thorne, who has not had that opportunity to play in this system as much,” Dantonio said. “He's been a scout team quarterback. Giving him some opportunities. Same with Theo Day.
“I think Theo Day and Payton are the two guys you want to see. Let's give them some opportunities there. We're going to invest in that. We've done some what I would call showtime -- not scrimmages because we've not gone full live with that -- opportunities at the end of practice where they have an opportunity to show out a little bit.”
Those moments in practice have been the chance for Thorne, especially, to show he’s progressed enough to get a shot in the game.
“There’s been a few different practices where I get in with the first group,” Thorne said. “Just keep focusing on doing the right thing. The more you do the right thing, things are going to work out. Just focus on doing the right thing.”
While Thorne has spent the season running the scout team offense knowing he likely won’t see time in a game, that hasn’t stopped him from trying to gather as much knowledge as possible. Along with wide receivers Cade McDonald and Jayde Reed – two high school teammates – Thorne has been getting accustomed to college life while soaking up everything he can during meetings and on the practice field.
And once he’s out there, he does is best to be ready.
“I just kind of go into every game with the mindset of being ready,” Thorne said. “You never know what’s going to happen. Obviously, it’s been Brian’s year. I thought that he’s played well, done what he’s supposed to do. Other than that, just being ready. Ready at all times.”
Day has at least gotten on the field this season, appearing in the win over Western Michigan and getting in again in the loss to Penn State. In that game, Day was 2-for-3 passing but suddenly got pulled in the middle of a series.
In the rush of his first real action, Day messed up the play call.
“It’s just part of a process,” Day said. “Signal got mixed up, I missed the signal. I guess it’s just part of the process of getting your first plays, but I’ll definitely learn from that.”
It proved to be the last time Day has seen the field this season as Michigan State scrambled to become bowl eligible, but Day has continued to put himself in position to take advantage of his next opportunity.
“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve just competed every day,” Day said. “We try to get the best out of each other. Like I said, we have a super tight QB room, we all support each other. Right now, we’re just focused on Wake Forest and getting better with these bowl practices.”
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
MICHIGAN STATE VS. WAKE FOREST
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 3:20 p.m., Yankee Stadium, New York
TV/radio: ESPN/760 AM
Records: Michigan State 6-6, Wake Forest 8-4
Line: Michigan State by 4.5