Starting agrees with MSU's Payton Thorne; Tre’Von Morgan comes up big

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

State College, Pa. — By the middle of the week, Payton Thorne knew he was getting his shot.

That’s when the redshirt freshman found out he was starting on Saturday when Michigan State hit the road to take on Penn State, looking to rebound from last week’s loss to Ohio State.

It was in that Ohio State game that Thorne replaced junior Rocky Lombardi after the starter for the first six games this season was knocked out in the second quarter with an injury. Thorne played well, completing his first 11 passes and adding a 20-yard touchdown run in the second half.

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne (10) is sacked by Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney (18) in the first quarter.

But there was no guarantee he’d start this week, something some thought would have come earlier in the season. But with Lombardi on the sidelines Saturday in sweats, it was Thorne’s show, and he made the most of it.

Thorne threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns — career bests, by far — as Michigan State jumped out to an 11-point halftime lead, one it ultimately couldn’t hold in Penn State’s 39-24 victory.

Still, it was an impressive outing for Thorne, who took advantage of a week’s worth of time in practice with the first-team offense.

“Obviously, it’s a better scenario,” Thorne said. “I think the best part of that is getting those reps during the week, and on Wednesday I was able to get the reps with the first group and get in sync with those guys. In the past I haven’t been getting a ton of reps with those guys and getting that going during the week helps a ton, being able to talk to them about what we’re seeing and what I’d like for them to do and same thing for them from me. I think that helped a lot, and obviously (the score) being 0-0 was nice to start the game.”

Thorne’s day started ominously as his first pass was intercepted by Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker. But Brisker fumbled the ball right back to the Spartans as he tried to return the interception.

“You can’t be throwing interceptions early in the game like that,” Thorne said. “You can’t be throwing interceptions at all, but it was a good job by my teammates to track that guy down, whoever punched the ball out and we were able to recover it.”

From there, Thorne was in sync. He hit Jalen Nailor with a 45-yard touchdown pass to give Michigan State a 7-3 lead and followed that with a 26-yard strike over the middle to Tre’Von Morgan to give the Spartans a 14-10 lead. His 7-yard strike late in the first half to Nailor gave him three touchdown passes on three straight drives.

“I can tell you that he was poised and that he wasn't rattled,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said of Thorne. “He was into the game and he was aware the entire game, start to finish, even when we started slow. He was still there, and that's good to see. He had a good look in his eye and he was into the game.”

Morgan turns heads

Entering Saturday’s game, Morgan had appeared in only three games and had yet to catch a pass. But after spending his redshirt season last year recuperating from an injury, the 6-foot-7 Morgan had spent the past few weeks starting to turn some heads in practice.

It paid off with his first career catch, which happened to be a 26-yard touchdown in traffic as Morgan flashed his athleticism.

“I just tried to put it over his shoulder for him, in a place where he could make a catch and fortunately he went and made a play,” Thorne said of Morgan’s catch. “I was excited to see that and I thought it was a good catch. I really didn’t see the whole catch. I don’t know if he bobbled it or what, but I know he came down with it and I was pretty excited about that.

“He’s made some nice plays (in practice) and I think he’s gonna be a great player for us down the road. Obviously, you guys saw it today. I expect to keep working with him and I think that connection is going to grow.”

Morgan finished with two catches for 46 yards.

Unknown unknowns

This was the last game on the schedule for this season but Michigan State will play one more game next week. Who it’s against is still unclear as the Big Ten sorts out the standings, determines which teams won’t be able to play because of ongoing COVID-19 issues and puts together a schedule.

The only certainty right now is Ohio State and Northwestern meeting in the conference title game. As for MSU, Tucker said he’s unsure of who they’ll play and where, but will work as much as possible to be prepared.

“I haven't been told anything, but it doesn't matter,” Tucker said. “At some point we'll get a date, we'll get a team and we’ll get ready to go.”

Extra points

Lombardi did not play but was with the team and was on the sidelines during the game.

In addition to Lombardi, Michigan State was without a handful of key players on Saturday. Defensive end Jacub Panasiuk and cornerback Chris Jackson did not play, nor did wide receiver Ricky White, tight end Trenton Gillison and defensive tackle Jalen Hunt.

White, Gillison and Hunt have been out the past couple of games, but Panasiuk and Jackson played last week. There was no update given on the players’ status after the game.

… Freshman running back Jordon Simmons returned to action after missing the previous two games and ran for a season-high 72 yards, matching a career-high of 14 carries.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau