MSU QB Battle: A True Dichotomy
Updated: Apr 1
The weather is turning, the trees are blooming around one of the most picturesque college campuses in the country, and spring football has kicked off in the first "real off-season" of the Mel Tucker era. Amid a wild time in sports with March Madness, NBA, NHL, MLB spring training, etc. the eyes of East Lansing turn back to the gridiron to see how the program progresses in year 2 with a staff that continues its attempt to bring the program back to recent glory. Transfers are flying in and out of the portal, recruiting commitments are starting to pick up, early enrollees are getting their first taste of college football, and the pads are officially on.
We saw a lot from Michigan State in 2020, Mel Tucker's first season at the helm. Some was good (a rivalry game win in Ann Arbor, a top 10 win against Northwestern at home) and some was bad (3 blowout losses - 49-7 @ Iowa, 24-0 vs Indiana, 52-12 vs Ohio State). We can point to a lot of things that led to the 2-5 record. A 1st year coach without a true off-season, a lack of young, talented depth players, poor play on the offensive line, and, more than anything, inconsistent and at times inept play at the quarterback position. The last point is where we turn our focus to in this piece, and throughout this off-season.
The story of the MSU quarterback position is an interesting one with a lot of context. Brian Lewerke was a tough evaluation as an MSU fan because, while the stats are at times impressive, he never seemed to improve on his 2017 season that finished with 10 wins. Behind him was a depth chart void of trustworthy options to replace him, and we came into the 2020 season with what was believed to be a three way battle between Rocky Lombardi, Payton Thorne, and Theo Day. Lombardi was the one with the game experience as a result of Lewerke injuries. Thorne was the redshirt freshman with the mobility that the sport craves at the position. Day was the prototype in terms of size and arm power, but never seemed to get in the good graces of the previous staff. Ultimately Lombardi's leadership won out, and save for a borderline miraculous performance against Michigan in his best/biggest performance of his career, struggled to find any consistency throughout the season. Lombardi threw for 323 yards and 3 TDs to 0 INTs against Michigan. The rest of the season he combined for 727 yards, 5 TDs, and 9 INTs on 53.6% passing. The need for a replacement was clear. In comes Payton Thorne who replaces Rocky in a couple snaps to finish the Iowa game, but gets his first real opportunity against Indiana where he showed a spark at times, but failed to put any points on the board and was sent back to the bench the following week. Against Ohio State Thorne again was called on to replace a struggling Lombardi. In that game he entered to a 28-0 deficit against a team that competed in the national championship game, but held his own with a 20 yard touchdown scamper, and earned the start in what turned out to be the final game of the season against Penn State. Thorne threw touchdown passes in 3 straight drives against PSU with over 200 yards in the 2nd quarter alone. While the 2nd half took a downward spiral, the momentum was palpable as Spartan fans rejoiced finding a potential answer at the QB position.
We now cut to March 2021, Thorne played well enough to be given an opportunity for the job, but a new face has emerged, one who looks and plays nothing like the incumbent. Anthony Russo enters MSU via the transfer portal, and brings a whole lot of game experience with him. In 3 seasons at Temple, Russo has played in 27 games, thrown for over 6,000 yards and 44 touchdowns, and put himself on the radar of the NFL with his 6'4 245lb frame and strong arm.
While the talent between the two might be similar, the playstyles are anything but. I liken the comparison to a video game roster. If we're grading the pure objective talent of the two players in an NCAA football video game, the overall might be similar, but how they arrive at the overall are polar opposites.
If Payton Thorne is what modern football is turning to, with his mobility and escapability, Anthony Russo is what football used to crave. At 6'4 with a rocket arm, Russo is the prototype that NFL GMs have loved for decades. He will stand in the pocket, deliver with traffic in his face, and has the arm talent to reach all levels of the field. You need a QB who can hit a quick slant one play, and fire a deep shot to the sideline 45 yards downfield the next play? Russo is your guy. You need a QB who will threaten the linebackers on a read option? Unfortunately, Russo isn't your guy.
The QB competition going into this year is fascinating, and one that will give us a strong idea of what this staff values at the position moving forward. If they go with Russo, they value a guy that will constantly keep safeties on their toes with his ability to put the ball just about anywhere on the field. If they go with Thorne, they value a guy that will constantly keep linebackers on their toes with his ability to take off and get a 1st down with his legs any time he sees an opening. All that said, as we've seen many times before (see: Connor Cook), whoever is the winner (or loser) of this battle going into week 1 is far from discarded in this program.
Listen to our discussion about the QB competition and more of our spring football notes on the Standing Room Spartans Podcast here: