Michigan State braces for stingy Northwestern as quarterback competition continues

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

While most of us adjust to a holiday week unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetimes, it will be business as usual at Michigan State.

That’s partly because folks are being discouraged from gathering in large groups for Thanksgiving because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for the Spartans, it’s as much about getting prepared to take on No. 11 Northwestern on Saturday after having last week’s game at Maryland canceled.

Jayden Reed and Michigan State will have their hands full Saturday with Northwestern's defense, ranked second in the Big Ten.

“We’re going to have a normal week,” coach Mel Tucker said on Tuesday. “We had a normal Monday practice, we’re gonna have a physical practice (Tuesday) and Wednesday and then have a de-load, no-sweat Thursday, we’ll have a fast Friday and then we'll take it into the game. That’s our plan.

“Obviously, this is not a normal Thanksgiving for us, for anyone, because of the COVID pandemic. And so, we’re doing the things that we need to do that give us the best chance to be safe.”

And being safe means the Spartans (1-3) will get to play again, something they haven’t done since Nov. 14 when they lost at home to Indiana. Last week’s game at Maryland was canceled because of the number of positive COVID tests with the Terrapins, but at this point, things are on schedule for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Spartan Stadium.

So, instead of getting together as a team and maybe carving a giant turkey, it will be standard game prep. Tucker and his staff, once they got word late last week they would not be playing at Maryland, shifted into a standard bye-week schedule, mixing in some extra practice for some of the backups on Saturday followed by treatment and yoga on Sunday.

During that extra time, Tucker said the quarterback competition continues. The last time out, redshirt freshman Payton Thorne replaced junior Rocky Lombardi, prompting questions as to whether the Spartans would shift toward Thorne as the starter or stick with Lombardi.

“It’s going to be an ongoing thing this week,” Tucker said. “The clarity comes in terms of – it’s just a reminder and it reinforces that competition is what this is all about and there’s nothing set in stone.”

Nothing set in stone has been Tucker’s mantra from the outset, and that’s been clear at multiple positions through the first four games. And as Michigan State heads into the second half of Tucker’s first season, it appears that will continue to be the case at quarterback.

Lombardi got the nod coming out of preseason camp, benefitting from the experience of 16 games and three starts over his first two seasons. It proved to be a wise decision as Lombardi threw for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns in each of the first two games, highlighted by the victory at Michigan.

However, he threw three interceptions in that first game, then threw four more in losses to Iowa and Indiana, ultimately giving way to Thorne in the second quarter against the Hoosiers. In his first extensive action — Thorne played one series at Iowa — the young quarterback showed some flashes, making plays with his feet and hitting a few solid throws in a 10-for-20 outing. Of course, there were the standard mistakes from a young player and Thorne also threw an interception.

It led to competition last week that has bled into a second week with a resolution due on Saturday.

“Everyone’s got to compete,” Tucker said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with what you’ve done in the past, it’s what you’ve done most recently and you’re only as good as your next play. That’s the world we live in, that’s the nature of our game and our existence.

“We have to prove ourselves every day, players and coaches, and that's part of our culture. We’ve got to embrace that and lean into that and understand that and take pride in consistency and performance, having a chip on your shoulder every day, proving yourself every day.”

The Wildcats (5-0) have the No. 2 defense in the Big Ten and No. 15 in the nation. A week ago, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s crew limited Wisconsin to just seven points.

As for facing Michigan State, the 'Cats plan to prepare for whoever stands under center.

“We’re going to prepare for both of them,” Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph said. “It doesn’t really matter to us who we see out there. I believe in Coach Hank’s plan and I’m going to do what he tells me to do and we’re going to get them off the field.”

Until then, though, both teams will keep plugging away this week. Perhaps it will be turkey for dinner, but that’s as far as it will go for the Spartans.

Of course, you likely won’t hear many complaints.

“It’s definitely a strange time, but it's a strange time for everyone,” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Naquan Jones said. “It’s a commitment. Coach Tucker always lets us know, ‘Don't feel like you're getting put against your will to be here. If you want to be here, you love playing football.’”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau