Hunt: Lombardi impresses, ‘comfortable’ in debut win

EAST LANSING, Mich. — After Michigan State’s 21-7 loss to in-state rivals Michigan last week, it was revealed that quarterback Brian Lewerke had not practiced the entire week leading up to the game due to a right shoulder injury.

Boy, did it show.

Lewerke’s 5-25, 66-yard performance was the subject of scrutiny this past week, and one question was asked over and over again by the Spartan faithful: Why didn’t backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi start?

Lombardi had practiced the whole week leading up to Michigan and was ready to start the rivalry game before Lewerke was elected to start instead. It was revealed Friday that Lombardi would get his first career start on Saturday against Purdue, giving Lewerke more time to rest his injured shoulder.

Rocky Lombardi took full advantage of his opportunity, going 26-46 with 318 yards and two touchdown passes en route to a 23-13 win over the Boilermakers. Lombardi’s feet were active as well, earning 22 yards rushing and staying away from Purdue’s pass rush, who only sacked him once all game.

“I thought Rocky played a tremendous game,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said postgame. “For a guy coming in there on his first start, big game, really big game.

“I thought he was poised, I thought he ran the ball effectively when he was asked to, I thought he was pretty much on the money throwing the football, had some very big plays out there, missed a couple by inches, but it’s a game of inches.”

Lombardi’s aggressiveness on his feet allowed him to make plays on the run, whether giving himself time to find an open man or taking the ball and running himself; he credited it to the play-calling of co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner.

“Coach Warner did a good job of calling routes I was comfortable with,” Lombardi said.

Lombardi was able to find a good rhythm early on in the game, breaking for a 9-yard run that was followed by a 14-yard pass to Darrell Stewart, both earning first downs. Lombardi looked comfortable throughout the game and the rest of the Spartan offense followed suit. Michigan State was able to convert on six of 16 third downs this week, a vast improvement from last week’s abysmal 0-12.

Lombardi’s flexibility in the backfield carried over to the options he had to pass to; nine different players caught a pass from Lombardi in this game despite both of MSU’s top two receivers (Felton Davis III and Cody White) not appearing in the game. The offense’s ability to find open receivers and get first downs contributed to their high possession numbers this week. The Spartan offense held the ball for 38:13 against Purdue compared to the 18:57 they had against Michigan.

After Lombardi’s performance against Purdue, there is no reason for Lewerke to get the start against Maryland unless he is feeling 100 percent. Lewerke has earned the starting job and firmly has the coaching staff, and a good portion of Spartan fans, behind him; but when a player is injured, their quality of play can be greatly inhibited, and that was the case for Lewerke against Michigan.

Lombardi proved himself in the win against Purdue and, by doing so, showed he may even be worthy of snaps when Lewerke is healthy. It would be interesting to see how Michigan State would manage a dual-quarterback system; both Lewerke and Lombardi have proved to be capable enough to lead this offense.

Lewerke has one more season after this to prove himself if he wants to make a run towards the NFL, whereas Lombardi’s career as a Spartan is just beginning. It remains unknown which quarterback will get the nod next week when the Spartans travel to College Park, Md. to take on the Maryland Terrapins, something Dantonio would not comment on in his press conference.

“We’re not talking about injuries, as we always don’t,” Dantonio said. “I’m just excited that we have two quarterbacks playing at a high level.”