Going into the 2018 season, Michigan State had plenty to be excited about when it came to the quarterback position, not just because of what returning starter Brian Lewerke brings to the table, but also what the Spartans knew they had in backup Rocky Lombardi, even though he had yet to throw a pass in his college career.
But Lombardi showed exactly why he had the support and confidence of so many in and around the Michigan State program when he made his first career start against Purdue on Saturday.
Lombardi threw for 318 yards and two touchdowns on 26-of-46 passing to lead the Spartans to a 23-13 win over Purdue that head coach Mark Dantonio described as one of the most rewarding wins that Michigan State has had in his time in East Lansing.
Dantonio noted that he felt that with Lewerke out due to injury, not only did Lombardi fill in adequately from a statistical standpoint but also said that he proved to be a leader for the offense through his preparation and in-game energy.
“I thought we’ve gotten good leadership from our quarterbacks throughout this year and last year,” he said. “I think Brian Lewerke does a great job with that too, I think Rocky is an emotional guy having his first start and I thought he brought a little extra. He is like that. He’s a dependable leader and he studies the game hard and he prepared himself for this moment. So when the moment came, he was ready.”
Lombardi regularly moved Michigan State into Purdue territory on Saturday afternoon, leading the Spartans on five scoring drives, two of which were for touchdowns. Lombardi’s first career touchdown pass came late in the first half when he connected with Darrell Stewart Jr. on a well-placed throw for an 11-yard score.
After the game on Saturday, Stewart told reporters that he wasn’t surprised by Lombardi’s performance in his first career start and said that the redshirt freshman signal-caller made the most of the opportunity.
“He’s a great guy, a wonderful quarterback,” he said. “One thing I’ve said about Rocky is he’s a guy that when he has opportunities that present themselves, he’s just ready to go up there and make the most out of it.”
Considering the rumors swirling all week leading up to Saturday’s game, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that Lombardi would be starting in place of an injured Lewerke.
When talking to coaches and players, one of the first thing that is mentioned about Lombardi’s performance was his diligent preparation and his calm nature during the game.
“First of all, I was very impressed with how he prepared, it was very obvious right from the start,” Spartan offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “Going all the way back to two weeks when it was a possibility of him playing, he was preparing as if he was going to play and he did again this week, he prepared non-stop all week long, I mean, really, really good. Obviously, his performance was very good today, I thought he kept his cool, he was in control - that was the biggest thing, he was in control. Nothing’s ever going to be perfect out there, there were some screw-ups but he was always in control, he never looked flustered and he made plays.”
When the offense wasn’t on the field, Lombardi could be seen stepping in the defensive and special teams huddles at times voicing words of encouragement before those units would take the field.
Spartan senior captain and starting safety Khari Willis said that Lombardi’s energy and attitude was something that definitely rubbed off on the rest of the team on Saturday and that his leadership, mentality, and preparation all helped him be successful against the Boilermakers.
“I think with his background, he’s a tough guy, mentally, he’s tough,” he said. “He’s a great, fun guy to be around, he’s a great leader. He’s always working on his game and I think that paid off for him today. I think our coaches did a great job of putting him in situations where he can win and I think he took advantage of it.”
One position group that was an obvious benefactor from Lombardi starting on Saturday was the tight ends, who entered with just nine receptions as a group on the season, but recorded five catches against Purdue, four of which were by Matt Dotson.
Dotson said that during the Michigan game two weeks ago, he took the time to tell Lombardi that the redshirt freshman’s time could be coming sooner rather than later and credited him for being able to effectively step in and guide the Spartans to a much-needed win.
“Just time and place, things happened in the Penn State game and Brian kind of got banged up,” he said. “It was funny, last week (against Michigan) when Rocky went in - probably a drive or two before he went in - I saw him, his teeth were chattering, he was freezing and I told him ‘Hey man, this could be your shot. Just take full advantage of it.’ The door opened and he basically walked right through it and got the job done.”
Considering Lombardi’s performance and that Lewerke still remains banged up, the Spartans should now feel plenty comfortable allowing Lombardi to continue starting until Lewerke gets back to being 100% healthy. The possibility of finding ways for Lombardi to see the field even after Lewerke returns to full health should also be considered as well.
At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Dantonio said that he feels that Lombardi’s performance against Purdue puts Dantonio and the coaching staff in a good position moving forward.
“I think it's a good problem, let's just put it that way,” he said. “You've got a guy that played well, and we'll make decisions based on health and other things as we go forward.”
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