With 'next-play mentality,' Michigan State's Payton Thorne delivers after rough start

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

East Lansing — He'll admit that he shouldn't have thrown the first one.

The second one was just an unlucky bounce.

But after those two first-quarter interceptions on Saturday, Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne settled down and made every big throw the rest of the way, as the No. 8 Spartans fought back from a 16-point deficit in East Lansing on Saturday to remain unbeaten with a 37-33 win over No. 6 Michigan.

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne throws a pass during the third quarter.

"He was very calm, cool and collected," Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. "We talked in the team meeting this morning at the hotel. I said, 'You're going to have to be the eye of the storm for our football team for four quarters.' We didn't see anything different from him today than (what) we've seen at practice."

Kenneth Walker III may have been the star for Michigan State on Saturday, but Thorne's stat line doesn't tell enough of his role in the comeback win. He finished 19-for-30 passing for 196 yards and two interceptions, with no touchdowns.

When Michigan State needed it most, though, Thorne kept drives alive — including a pair of huge throws on fourth down that both led to touchdowns on the next play.

"We talk a lot about staying neutral, and with that, it's not that you're super positive all the time," Thorne said. "It's that you're not negative."

It certainly would have been easy for Thorne to be negative after his turnovers in the first quarter helped Michigan to a 10-0 lead at Spartan Stadium. 

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On Michigan State's first drive, Thorne took a shot to Jalen Nailor in double coverage, and R.J. Moten snuck in from the deep secondary to pick it off at the 2-yard-line. Thorne was able to get by mentally, convincing himself it was basically just a really good punt.

"They rolled coverage, and that ball can't go that high, because (Moten) is going to make that play," Thorne said. "You never want to turn the ball over, ever. But them catching it at the 1-yard-line, I was like, 'OK, that's a punt.' We might have gone for it on fourth down, so that's why you never turn it over, but yeah.

"You got a whole game in front of you."

After a three-and-out, Thorne on the next possession fired a pass that was deflected by Daxton Hill, into the arms of Michigan lineman Mike Morris. 

But that was where most of the frustration stopped.

Thorne completed a fourth-down pass to Nailor that help set up a touchdown on the very next drive, starting a run of five touchdowns in five of Michigan State's next eight drives to close the game.

"He just kept that next-play mentality," Jayden Reed said. "You can't stay on that last play, that'll mess up your game. He just had that next-play mentality, and it helped us out a lot."

The best was yet to come.

Down 30-14, Thorne and Michigan State had it fourth-and-4 at the 29 of Michigan. The sensible play would be to give to Walker and let him cook, or to find one of his speedy receivers on a shallow crossing route. 

Neither of those things happened. The redshirt sophomore wound up and hit Reed at the pylon to give Michigan State first-and-goal at the 1; it scored on the next play, then converted a two-point attempt to make it 30-22.

"The call came in, I loved it," Thorne said. "We hadn't called it all game, and I knew we were going to have a matchup there. Thankfully, they rolled coverage, I think they just played straight man. I have confidence that (Reed is) gonna win that every time he runs that.

"It felt good coming out of my hand, and I was just watching it, praying that he would come down with it, and he made a good play."

His first half wasn't pretty. His second half was. And in a game like football, Tucker said, sometimes that's all you need.

"That's what it's all about. It's not always going to be pretty," Tucker said. "Football's not a game of perfect. But we talk a lot about competitive greatness, which is being at your best when your best is needed."

"I think we saw that down the stretch."

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.