MSU falls to 2-5 after blowing 11-point halftime lead


Jalen Nailor catches a 45-yard touchdown pass from Payton Thorne/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Nathan Stearns, Football Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING — A tale of two halves.

Led by a three-touchdown outburst from quarterback Payton Thorne in the second quarter, Michigan State held an 11-point lead at half. The Spartans wouldn’t be able to hold the lead for very long, as Sean Clifford and Jahan Dotson catapulted a dormant PSU offense en route to a 39-24 win.  

“I really liked the plays we were running, and I liked how we were executing,” Thorne said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t carry that over into the second half at all.”

Payton Thorne rolls out of the pocket against Penn State/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

With the loss, the Spartans drop to 2-5 on the season, while Penn State improves to 3-5 on the season.

The Spartans were outscored 29-3 in the second half. Despite the collapse, Thorne had a solid game, as he completed 22-of-39 passes for 325 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Jalen Nailor was Thorne’s favorite weapon in the game, as he caught six passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns, including a 49-yard bomb.

“Jalen is growing as a player,” head coach Mel Tucker said. “He’s actually becoming a leader, not just a playmaker.”

In the Spartans’ opening possession, Thorne threw an interception on third-and-long to Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker. Brisker fumbled the ball on the return, which the Spartans promptly recovered. Despite getting the ball back, MSU couldn’t move the ball and was forced to punt.

The Nittany Lions would string together a 12-play, 65-yard drive on their first offensive series of the game. A holding call wiped out a Keyvone Lee score and forced Penn State to settle for a 24-yard field goal. 

After another Spartan offensive possession fizzled out, the Nittany Lions would hold onto the ball until the end of the first quarter. As a result, the Nittany Lions held a narrow 3-0 lead. 

Penn State would punt the ball right back to the Spartans at the onset of the second quarter. After a couple of strong runs by freshman running back Jordon Simmons, Thorne would hit Nailor in stride for a 45-yard touchdown to give the Spartans the 7-3 lead. The passing score was the first of Thorne’s college career. 

Jalen Nailor catches a 45-yard touchdown pass from Payton Thorne/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

The Nittany Lions would respond with a quick score of their own that was capped off by a 31-yard touchdown run from quarterback Sean Clifford, giving the Nittany Lions a 10-7 lead with 10:00 remaining in the first half. 

In what quickly was turning into an offensive track meet, Thorne would respond with a 26-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman Tre’Von Morgan. The touchdown catch was the first reception of Morgan’s career. 

“The past couple weeks, he’s been coming on…he had done some things in practice and he had his opportunity,” Tucker said about Morgan.

Thorne would continue his sensational first half with a 7-yard passing score to Nailor. The score was set up by a 37-yard completion to Jayden Reed as well as a 21-yard completion to Matt Dotson on third down.

The Spartans would take the 21-10 lead into halftime. Thorne went into the locker room going 11-of-13 with 202 passing yards and three touchdowns. After the first three offensive possessions stalled out for the Spartans, Thorne and Nailor led the Spartans to three-straight scoring drives to end the half. 

Clifford and the Penn State offense would come out firing with an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive that concluded with an 8-yard pass from Clifford to Parker Washington. The touchdown was followed up with a successful two-point conversion attempt that made the score 21-18.  

Naquan Jones and other Spartan defenders wrap up Penn State RB Keyvone Lee/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Both teams traded punts over the next two drives. MSU strung together another strong scoring drive that was aided by several gutsy runs from Simmons. The Spartans had first-and-goal from the 4-yard line, but a couple of negative running plays would force MSU to settle for a 23-yard Matt Coghlin field goal. 

For the second time in the third quarter, PSU would go the length of the field and punch it in, courtesy of a 1-yard Will Levis rushing score. A 36-yard reception by Dotson, as well as a 26-yard reception to Washington, set up the touchdown. At the end of the third quarter, the Nittany Lions led the Spartans by one point, 25-24.

Penn State would stretch its lead to eight after a long bomb from Clifford to Washington went for a 49-yard score. The score, which resulted in a 32-24 lead, was quickly forgotten when Dotson exploded yet again, this time for an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown. In a period of five minutes, the Spartans saw a one-point deficit turn into a 15-point hole. 

The Nittany Lions would hold serve for the rest of the game and win 39-24. The win marked the third victory in a row for a team that had lost its first five games of the season.

With the regular season over, the Spartans will await their cross-conference matchup. At the onset of the season, the Big Ten passed a provision that provided each Big Ten team with the chance to play their division counterpart in Week 9, based on regular-season record. 

Tucker said in the postgame presser that “he hasn’t been told anything” regarding the Spartans’ potential Week 9 opponent. 

Several Big Ten West teams, including Purdue and Minnesota, are currently dealing with COVID-19 issues, so it remains to be seen who the Spartans will play next week and if the game will actually be played.