Mel Tucker not ready to name Michigan State starting quarterback for Penn State game

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State’s quarterback position is one that has seemed to be in some state of flux for most of the season, and headed into Saturday’s matchup with Penn State, that hasn’t changed.

In last week’s loss to Ohio State, starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi was knocked from the game in the second quarter and was replaced by redshirt freshman Payton Thorne, who played well, throwing for 147 yards and running for a touchdown.

Michigan State quarterback Payton Throne came on in relief and  threw for 147 yards in Saturday's loss to Ohio State.

On Tuesday, coach Mel Tucker said Lombardi is getting better but added there had been no decision made on who would be the starter against the Nittany Lions.

“He seemed to be doing better yesterday,” Tucker said. “So we're going to go through and we're evaluating everything. We’re going to go through (Tuesday) and hopefully I'm anticipating sometime by the end the day (Wednesday) we'll know who we're going to go with, and then we'll do that. But we're still in the evaluation process right now.”

That process seemed to be a formality considering how Lombardi left the Ohio State game last weekend. It was late in the second quarter when Lombardi was scrambling out of the pocket and was sacked by Ohio State’s Tyreke Smith, appearing to hit his head on the ground when he went down. Lombardi seemed dazed and was taken to the locker room.

In came Thorne, who seemed to spark the offense, completing his first 11 passes as he played the rest of the game. Thorne led one touchdown drive and had a chance at another after Michigan State forced a turnover in Ohio State territory. But Thorne threw an interception on the next play to end that drive as the Buckeyes began to pull away and put the game firmly out of reach.

It was the second time Thorne has come in for Lombardi and seen significant action, though the first time in the Indiana game was simply to make a change and not because of an injury. There’s a chance Thorne could have gotten in the game regardless, considering Lombardi had little success against Ohio State, going 5-for-11 for 33 yards and having a pass deflected in the end zone and intercepted for a touchdown.

After the loss to the Buckeyes, Thorne was focusing only on his preparation and not whether he’d get his first start.

“It’s up to the coaches what they think and who they think has the best skill set that fits our offense,” Thorne said. “So I'm gonna keep showing up and doing what I do and playing how I play and I'm gonna keep competing.

"That’s all I know how to do and it's all I can do.”

On Tuesday, while Tucker wasn’t committing either way, he did talk about what he wants out of his starting quarterback.

“Your quarterback has to be the No. 1 competitor on your team, period,” Tucker said. “It’s the way it’s got to be. If you look at the best quarterbacks in the country or the best quarterbacks in NFL, they are the No. 1 competitor on a team, or at least on the offense, and it’s obvious. They have to be leaders and they have command of the offense, and they have to have mental toughness.”

Tucker added a few other important attributes like accuracy throwing the football, making the proper reads and going through progressions as well as recognizing defensive fronts and being able to make the proper checks at the line of scrimmage.

But it all still came down to the mindset of the quarterback.

“We talk about quarterbacks and what type of competitor is he,” Tucker said. “Will he out-compete everyone on the team? Will he give that effort to be the No. 1 competitor?”

One more year?

It’s been clear for most of the season that Tucker intends to make some changes to the roster, and that becomes interesting considering the fact this season does not count toward anyone’s eligibility. That means that seniors could conceivably be back for another year.

Linebacker Antjuan Simmons said on Saturday it’s a decision for after the season, and on Tuesday defensive end Drew Beesley said he’s thought about it, but needs to talk to Tucker before a decision is made. As for Tucker, he said each case will depend on that particular player.

“There are some that may come back and we'll just have to see,” Tucker said, “because everyone's going to make a decision based upon their best interest, and that's kind of how it goes nowadays. So, it's really a fluid process and we'll take it on an individual basis, and then we'll make decisions on those guys and those guys will make decisions if they want to come back or not.”

Early signing period

The early signing period begins next week and the Spartans currently have 18 commitments, 19 if you count Australian punter Mark Vassett. Tucker said he hopes most, if not all, sign next week instead of waiting until February, but he understands that might not happen and isn’t afraid to keep working to get his guys signed, even if other teams keep pursuing them.

“The indication is most of the guys that are committed will sign but we'll just have to see,” Tucker said. “Recruiting is fluid and you never know. They’re not signed until they're signed, but we're willing to fight for our guys — the guys we want — through the 16th and beyond, all the way through to February and until the 11th hour. The hay is never in the barn.”

SpartanMag.com reported that quarterback Hampton Fay, offensive lineman Ethan Boyd and safety Michael Gravely Jr. are all planning to sign and enroll for next semester while Tucker again said they’ll be active in the transfer portal.

“The portal is a viable market to help your team,” he said.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau