Michigan State football's offensive dominance nothing new for Payton Thorne, Jayden Reed

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EAST LANSING — They’ve done this before. For years. Payton Thorne dropping back to pass, Jayden Reed making defenders chase his number from behind.

One releases the ball, the other runs under it. Then they celebrate a touchdown together.

Only the stage is bigger now, the stakes higher, the fans louder and more plentiful.

Youngstown State had few answers Saturday afternoon for Michigan State football’s starting quarterback and his childhood friend at wide receiver. Thorne threw for 280 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another score, connecting on touchdown passes to Reed of 75 and 85 yards as the Spartans dominated the Penguins, 42-14, in their home opener at Spartan Stadium.

Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed (1) makes a catch against Youngstown State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed (1) makes a catch against Youngstown State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

“When did I dream this moment? That's a good question, actually,” said Reed, who caught four passes for a career-high 181 yards. “I've been playing with him since (Thorne) was in sixth grade and I was in seventh grade. So yeah, we've played a lot of football together. We've done that, throwing those kinds of plays, many times. Probably we can't even count on our — on all of you guys' hands, honestly.”

MSU GRADES: Offense, coaching deliver in beatdown of Youngstown State

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The easy win over the Football Champion Subdivision foe came in front of a crowd of 70,103, the first game with fans in the stands for MSU since Nov. 30, 2019. The Spartans take a 2-0 record back on the road Saturday to face the 24th-ranked Miami Hurricanes. Kickoff is noon at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.

And they'll do so with growing confidence in a Thorne-guided offense under coordinator Jay Johnson that posted its most yardage in a single game since 2014— as well as back-to-back 500-plus-yard performances. (2014, by the way, was the most productive offense in MSU history.) MSU had 511 yards in a 38-21 season-opening win at Northwestern on Sept. 3, a complete reversal from struggling to move the ball for most of 2020. Saturday's 595 yards of total offense were the Spartans’ most since posting 662 against Indiana seven seasons ago.

“It matters who you're playing with. It matters who's on the field, what type of players you have,” second-year MSU coach Mel Tucker said. “That makes a huge difference. And so you always want to make sure that you get players the ball where they can make plays and be effective.”

And for the second time in as many weeks, the Spartans did just that on the first play – scoring a touchdown just 10 seconds into the game to set the tone.

Thorne, who won a tight quarterback battle with grad transfer Anthony Russo before the season, handed the ball off to Kenneth Walker III, just as he did to open last week. But instead of taking it the distance, the running back this time ran toward the line, then pitched it back to Thorne.

Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed (1) scores a touchdown against Youngstown State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed (1) scores a touchdown against Youngstown State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

As the quarterback looked downfield, Reed easily zipped past two YSU defenders. Thorne delivered an in-stride strike to Reed on the 35 for a 75-yard touchdown, sending the crowd into immediate hysterics, just as Walker did with his run 13 seconds in last week.

“We didn't run it too many times, but we knew Wednesday or Thursday that that's what we were opening with,” said Thorne, who completed 15 of 21 passes in his third career start. “They came out in the coverage we thought they were going to, and he made a nice play, took his time and it worked out for us.”

Reed’s eyes opened wide when asked if the Spartans’ new plan is to start every game with a touchdown on the first play.

“I wish we could score every play on the first play,” Reed said. “We did last week and this week. I mean, that's the standard, so we're gonna make that the goal for next week as well.”

[ Return of Spartan Stadium buzz a different 'program win' for Michigan State ]

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne (10) runs into the end zone for the touchdown against Youngstown State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne (10) runs into the end zone for the touchdown against Youngstown State during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

On MSU’s third drive of the game, Thorne pulled the ball late on a read option to Walker and ran around the left side for a for a 10-yard score. Two possessions later, early in the second quarter, Thorne again connected with Reed for a TD, this time on an 85-yard route similar to the first score.

Reed and Thorne played together at both Metea Valley and Naperville Central high schools in suburban Chicago. The 6-foot, 185-pound wide receiver transferred to MSU in 2019 after earning freshman All-American honors at Western Michigan. He had to sit out that fall, but he found a familiar face in Thorne — who decommitted from the Broncos to join Reed with the Spartans and work together on the scout team.

Tucker balked at saying the familiarity between the quarterback and his longtime receiver factored into the decision to give Thorne the starting quarterback job over Russo.

“It's all about the production and what we see in our practices,” Tucker said. “But I think it's a great story to tell.”

Thorne's tale wasn't finished Saturday. His screen pass to Elijah Collins went for a 20-yard touchdown on the drive after his second TD pass to Reed. In the third quarter, Thorne added a 16-yard score to Jalen Nailor, which came with a blitzing cornerback in his face, on his final play of the game.

“It's just a very exciting moment, getting back out there with him,” Reed said. “It's always exciting for me. I'm proud of how far he's come. He's become a much better player, a much better leader. It's just great watching him grow as a player and everything, so I'm excited for the rest of the season.”

MSU had a 35-7 lead and more than 400 yards by halftime. Russo took over late in the third quarter, after the Spartans’ lead swelled further.

Walker added his fifth rushing touchdown of the season late in the first half to make it 35-7, then didn’t play after halftime. The junior transfer from Wake Forest had seven carries for 57 yards, including a 6-yard score on which he dragged a slew of would-be tacklers into the end zone with him. That allowed Simmons, who led MSU in rushing last season as a freshman, to run 19 times for a career-best 121 yards — his first 100-yard game in college.

After watching three years of offensive struggles putting MSU’s defense in a hole, senior Xavier Henderson said the first-play touchdowns have helped his unit.

“The first thing I said, I was like, 'Coach Tuck is crazy,'” Henderson said. “I saw them practicing the play, but I didn't know they were gonna come out with it the first play of the game. But that's just coach Tuck's mind — he wanted to get out on these guys quick, and we executed that play well.”

Ironically, Henderson had his own reunion with a high school teammate: He took down YSU quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw on an aggressive safety blitz on the Spartans’ first defensive possession, then picked him off with a leaping one-handed interception in the second quarter. The two were teammates together at Pickerington Central High in Ohio (along with MSU tight end Trenton Gillison).

Michigan State's Xavier Henderson intercepts the ball intended for Youngstown State's Samuel St. Surin during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Xavier Henderson intercepts the ball intended for Youngstown State's Samuel St. Surin during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

“New gloves, kind of sticky. … I was able come down with it,” Henderson said with a grin. “Unfortunately, I hate to do my boy Meech like that. Demeatric was my starting quarterback in high school.

Playing with someone for so long can help a player, both as teammates and opponents. A defensive back can read a quarterback’s eyes, or a quarterback can know just where his receiver will get free coming out of a break.

But Tucker won’t call what Thorne and Reed displayed chemistry. At least not yet.

“I see execution. Whether that's chemistry, for me, it's too early to tell — if we want to call it chemistry,” Tucker said. “Because chemistry is also a process. We work on that as well — the connection with our team, with our coaches and players, the connection that we have. And it's important that we have team chemistry throughout our entire team, because you have to be able to count on the man next to you to do their job. He's got to be able to count on you to do your job. There's trust in that.

“If you can get the trust, and you have the chemistry and the guys care about each other and they're not just playing for themselves but they're playing for the man next to them, now you got something. Now you got a football team and not just a collection of players.”

It just happened that two of the most productive players on the field for the Spartans on Saturday have been doing this together for nearly 10 years. And they hope to for at least a few more at MSU.

“Like (Reed) said, we've had a ton of those plays. And like he said again, those aren't gonna be the last two,” Thorne said. “We're just gonna keep building. We've played a lot of football, so I'm excited to see where it's going.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football's Payton Thorne, Jayden Reed dominate