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Michigan State football’s more complicated relationship with passing the ball

Michigan State’s relationship with QB play has been quite a ride.



Michigan State football
© Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State football has had an even more complicated relationship with passing the ball.

Earlier this week, I wrote about how Michigan State football lives and dies with running the ball, and why that is incredibly important as the Spartans have historically always been a “run to pass” team. Since 2010, MSU has had more rush attempts than pass attempts in nine of the past 14 seasons. The interesting thing is that MSU has been pass dominant four of the past five seasons, with 2021 being the lone run dominant season (for obvious reasons).

I think anyone that has followed this team the past half decade has noticed that the results have left a lot to be desired, as MSU has gone 32-26 in that span, with an 11-2 season carrying the majority of the load. The 2018-2020 campaigns ushered in an era of ineptitude on offense and the 2022 season brought the fanbase traumatizing flashbacks of it after the fever dream that was 2021.

So what could this mean? I have a theory on one of the drivers of the offensive woes, and it really boils down to one thing:

The passing game has not met the moment due to the lack of a playmaker at the QB position for a while now.

Listen, I get it. If you’re a one-dimensional team, it’s really easy for opposing defenses to take advantage of that. When you can’t run, teams can pin their ears back and tee off on the quarterback or drop 7-8 guys and wait you out. Complementary football to be successful isn’t coach speak, it’s a very real thing.

Since 2015, the MSU teams that were pass dominant went 21-24. The run dominant? 36-16, and that is including a 3-9 season in 2016 that broke bad because of *reasons*. That just flatly isn’t good enough. We saw evidence of this even in 2021 when Kenneth Walker III wasn’t able to truly get going. The passing game couldn’t find ways to get it done when it was up to them. No Michigan State quarterback ranked in the top 50 of quarterbacks in completion percentage since 2015, with newly departed Payton Thorne being the only one completing more than 60 percent of his passes in 2021 and 2022.

When looking at Michigan State’s pass dominant seasons (2018-2020, 2022), the picture isn’t pretty. MSU ranked 122nd, 90th, 94th, and 44th in pass EPA/play. This most recent season was the only season where MSU did not have a negative pass EPA/play.


Connor Cook truly might be the last quarterback Michigan State football has had that looked around and said “get on my back, I’m taking control of this game.” Brian Lewerke showed flashes, but injuries and inconsistency had people clamoring for Rocky Lombardi to become the guy. Then, Rocky becomes the guy, and that was some of the most hilarious, chaotic quarterback play I’ve ever seen. Thorne became the guy, and in all honesty, he looked good and promising in 2021. However, moments in 2021 and his entire 2022 campaign were anemic and inept and also showed what his ceiling is as a quarterback, injured or not.

I had not been confident about an MSU quarterback leading a drive down the field late in games in a must score situation since Cook was under center. He wasn’t the perfect quarterback by any means either, but he made plays and did what it took to win.

With that being said, I have a fair (and possibly unwarranted) level of optimism with the quarterback room moving forward. It’s almost as if the position is moving back up the tiers to make it in the destination of elite quarterback play. Whether QB1 against Central Michigan is Noah Kim, a fourth-year guy who’s been a garbage time superstar, or Katin Houser, a second-year guy with huge upside and talent, I think has the opportunity to become the playmaker at the position that MSU has been longing for.

This offense overall is incredibly unproven, and given the history, it’s understandable to not be high on a unit that has been so mediocre. But this is also a group of players that has had a higher talent floor in terms of recruiting rankings than many of the teams before it, and that is enough reason to have at least a shred of optimism for me.

Add in a quarterback who emerges as the first playmaker since the golden era of modern Michigan State football? That’s a recipe for an incredibly fun offense, or at least a more competent one.


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