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MSU's Rocky Lombardi critical of own performance: 'I need to be better'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Rocky Lombardi knew early in the week.

Even if everyone following Michigan State football was left in the dark when it comes to who would be the starting quarterback when the Spartans kicked off the season against Rutgers, the fourth-year junior got the nod that he was, indeed, Michigan State’s starter.

After two years as Brian Lewerke’s backup, including the 2018 season when Lombardi started three times, it was finally Lombardi’s job.

His numbers were solid, too: 31-for-43 passing for 319 yards and three touchdowns.

But there were two interceptions — though one might not have been his fault and the other was late in the game with the outcome decided — and, of course, the fact Michigan State lost, 38-27.

So, true to form, Lombardi was as critical of himself as anyone.

“I think overall, obviously, at the end of the day my performance wasn't good enough to win us the game,” Lombardi said. “In my mind, I need to be better. Some things I did well was I completed most of my passes, kept the ball in play, and kept us moving in the right direction.

“I think the offense showed us some good things today. We were moving the ball. Obviously, we killed ourselves with the turnovers, but we were moving the ball and showing that we can be productive on offense and we can score touchdowns.”

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw for a career-high 319 yards in Saturday's season opener.

The belief is that there’s no way the Spartans (0-1) will continue to turn to the ball over the way they did against Rutgers. The seven giveaways were the most in a game for Michigan State since 1981, so it’s a fairly safe bet.

So, in that sense, Lombardi was right. He did have the offense moving the ball, and when they didn’t put it on the ground, drives usually ended up in points as the Spartans were forced to punt the ball just twice.

In other words, the offense, even without being able to run the ball well — MSU gained just 50 total yards on 39 attempts for an average of 1.3 yards a carry — was pretty good, something that was hard to say the last two years. It was that lack of production over the previous two seasons that had some wondering whether Lombardi was the answer at quarterback. And Mel Tucker and his staff weren’t giving any hints throughout preseason camp, giving equal reps to Lombardi, sophomore Theo Day and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne.

But by the time the Spartans started prepping for Rutgers, it was clear Lombardi had won the competition.

“I think that, ultimately, Coach Tucker obviously wants to win games and wants to put the best players out there and I think it was a combination of my experience, my leadership, and trying to be the best player that I can be,” Lombardi said. “I learned earlier this week, but I think it comes down to putting the players out there that you think will give you the best chance to win.”

Lombardi gave the Spartans the best chance against Rutgers and it appears he’ll continue to be given that opportunity as the season moves forward, beginning on Saturday at Michigan.

At least, it sure sounds that way judging by the reaction of his head coach.

“I thought that Rocky did some good things out there,” Tucker said. “If you look at his stats, that is pretty good production. I know there was a turnover early in the game, but we will have to watch the film. I think there was some miscommunication there, and obviously at the end he is trying to make a play.

“I think he showed really good leadership in this game. He continued to play the next play. He played tough, he played physical and he continued to fight. So just like the rest of the players, he is going to continue to improve. We are going to coach him just like we are going to coach the rest of these guys on some of the mistakes that they made and we will work to get better this week.”

Lombardi is focused on the same thing Tucker is — getting better.

His play on Saturday showed he’s on the right path as he recorded career highs in passing yards (319), pass completions (31) and passing touchdowns (three). He’s also now 2-2 as a starter, and just being able to be in that spot again — starting games at quarterback — is where Lombardi wants to be.

It’s been a while since he’s gotten that shot, but even after the loss, he’s confident things are headed in the right direction.

“I played a little bit last year but it really wasn't even meaningful minutes, almost the whole year,” Lombardi said. “So, now I just feel so much more comfortable in knowing the game plan and weapons on the outside and the O-line. I feel really comfortable with our offense right now. I think that we’ve got the weapons to be a productive offense.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau