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Start in home state a crashing disappointment for Michigan State's Rocky Lombardi

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Iowa City, Iowa – This was not how Rocky Lombardi planned for things to go.

Playing in his home state for the first time, the Michigan State quarterback was looking forward to leading the Spartans, his family in the mostly empty stands at Kinnick Stadium.

It was clear quite early, though, that there was no storybook tale to be told on this day.

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi, left, is pressured by Iowa defensive lineman Chauncey Golston, right, during the first half.

“Yeah, it definitely was tough,” Lombardi said. “This is not what I wanted to do coming home.”

That’s an understatement.

Not only did Iowa dominate the Spartans, 49-7, but Lombardi had one of his toughest games, throwing three interceptions with one getting returned for a touchdown. Lombardi finished 17-for-37 for 227 yards, a stark contrast to his first two weeks when he threw for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns in each of Michigan State’s first two games.

The interceptions were critical. Lombardi’s first came on the first drive and worked essentially like a punt. However, his second was floated into a crowd deep in Michigan State territory. The Spartans avoided disaster on that one as Iowa missed a field goal, but the third interception was a killer.

Late in the second quarter, after the Spartans had just given up a 54-yard punt return for an Iowa touchdown, Lombardi threw to the outside while falling down and it was picked off by the Hawkeyes’ Riley Moss. It was taken back 54 yards for another Iowa score, giving the Hawkeyes a 35-0 lead at halftime.

“I think I just tried to do a little bit too much,” Lombardi said. “I saw that we kind of needed to make some plays and I probably overstep my boundaries a little bit.

“That pick was just a little naked rollout and I thought I had leverage on the out route. I just didn't throw it far enough, didn't quite get it out there and I probably should have thrown it away. You just got to make the smart play there.”

With the game out of hand, Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said there was no plan to make a move at quarterback any earlier than the Spartans did. Redshirt freshman Payton Thorne played the final Spartans drive, missing on his only passing attempt.

Tucker said even with the struggles, Lombardi didn’t get down.

“He was consistent emotionally throughout the game,” Tucker said. “We talked  during the game about continuing to play the next play. Move on, execution, continue to lead, stay with your players, stay with your guys. Stay with them and keep working. That's what we talked about.”

Lombardi brushed off any talk of an injury after the broadcast on ESPN said he appeared to be hurt. Instead, he tried to focus on finishing as well as he could after the difficult first half.

“Towards the middle of the game, I was starting to get down,” Lombardi said. “In my head, I started feeling that I needed to do more than I should have, and that was a mistake, obviously. It’s something that I can look back on and fix. But towards the end of the game, I got back to that neutral thinking of process the play process. Treat every play as an individual game, execute the play, and then move on.”

Missing from action

Michigan State had a handful of players out against the Hawkeyes, including tight end Matt Dotson and cornerback Chris Jackson, starters from last week whom Tucker described as “banged up.”

The Spartans were also without wide receiver Tre Mosley and center Matt Allen for the second straight game.

The most notable injury for Michigan State, though, was to linebacker Antjuan Simmons. The senior leader started but his playing time was sporadic throughout the game as Chase Kline saw plenty of work in Simmons’ place.

Afterward, however, Simmons wasn’t using his injury as an excuse.

“I just couldn't go out there and be as productive as I have been in the past,” Simmons said. “But that's no excuse. When I was out there, I played hard. When Chase went out there, he played hard. Whoever was in there, they played hard. I personally didn't feel like anything was being missed with me not out there.”

Hunt steps in

With Dotson out, the Spartans were thin at tight end. Sophomore Trenton Gillison got the start and had three catches for 26 yards, but the door was open for someone else to get more work.

Instead of sophomore Adam Berghorst, junior Tyler Hunt took advantage.

The former backup punter who moved to tight end in preseason camp had his first career catch, a 7-yarder that went for a first down, then carried the ball for the first time in his career, a play that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run.

“I'm really proud of him,” Lombardi said. “He's a fantastic athlete, one of the best athletes on the team and people don't really give him enough credit for how athletic he is. To come to from punting to a skill position is a big deal, especially the mental part of the game. … For him to come in and really understand the offense, know where to line up, know what adjustments to make, he's doing a good job, and he's only going to continue to get better.”

Extra points

Sophomore wide receiver Jalen Nailor's 56-yard reception in the second quarter was a career-long for only a quarter, as he topped that with a 57-yard catch in the third quarter.

Nailor finished the game with four catches for 119 yards, another career high and his first 100-yard game.

… Redshirt freshman defensive end Michael Fletcher recorded both his first tackle and his first career sack, adding a half tackle for loss for a total of 1.5 tackles for loss.

… Graduate senior transfer Mitchell Crawford punter made his Spartans debut with four punts for a 37.2-yard average with a long of 47-yards and one inside the 20.

… Freshman wide receiver Terry Lockett Jr. caught his first career pass.

… Sophomore cornerback Julian Barnett started for the first time.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau