Spartans rally back to defeat Pittsburgh Panthers in Peach Bowl


Photo courtesy of The Detroit Free Press

MSU won the Peach Bowl back in December 2021, defeating the Pittsburgh Panthers 31-21.

Joseph Popis, Sports Reporter

The “keep chopping” mentality Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker has instilled into his team came to fruition once again in the season’s final game for the Spartans. The Spartans rallied back from a 21-10 deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat Pittsburgh and win the Peach Bowl back on Dec. 30, 31-21. This season, Mel Tucker put on a masterclass compiling 11 wins, winning the Paul Bunyan Trophy, the Land Grant Trophy and the Peach Bowl. Tucker ultimately brought this program back from the dead and gave Spartan fans something to cheer for again.

This year’s Peach Bowl happened without the main stars on both teams. Pittsburgh Quarterback Kenny Pickett and Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker Ⅲ both sat out due to preparing for the NFL Draft. Even without the star players, there was still plenty of action.

The Panthers received the ball to start the first half of the game and quickly punted it back to the Spartans, giving them excellent field position. With this advantageous field position on the Pittsburgh 29-yard line, (MSU) Payton Thorne connected with (MSU) Jayden Reed for a 28-yard touchdown to the right for the first score of the game 7-0.

Pittsburgh responded on their next drive, which was mainly composed of short runs. Eventually, (Pitt) Quarterback Nick Patti rushed to the left for a 16-yard touchdown 7-7. Unfortunately (Pitt) Patti would hurt his arm on that run and be out for the rest of the game. The Panthers were now down to their third-string quarterback (Pitt) Davis Beville, who had thrown only several in-game passes the whole season.

On the Spartans’ next drive, thanks to some solid catches from (MSU) Jalen Nailor and (MSU) Maliq Carr, the Spartans were able to get down in Pittsburgh territory again. The drive ended with a 36-yard field goal from (MSU) Matt Coghlin 10-7. The Panthers’ next drive would go nowhere to start the second quarter, leading to the Spartans getting the ball back. On this drive, (MSU) Thorne linked up with (MSU) Nailor, who made a miraculous catch for a 50-yard gain. However, the Spartans could not capitalize on the big play by (MSU) Nailor as (MSU) Coghlin missed the 33-yard field goal.

There were several punts and no points put on the board for most of the second quarter until the first half’s final minute. Pittsburgh would finally have a successful drive when (Pitt) Beville connected with (Pitt) Jordan Addison for a 53-yard gain to put them in Spartan Territory. (Pitt) Beville would then connect with (Pitt) Jared Wayne down the middle for a 4-yard touchdown to obtain Pitt’s first lead of the game 14-10.

The second half of the Peach Bowl got off to a rocky start for the Spartans. (MSU) Thorne rushed to the right on their first drive of the third quarter (MSU) and fumbled the football. (Pitt) Cam Bright would scoop the ball up and return it for a 26-yard touchdown 21-10. The Spartans didn’t have much luck again for their second drive of the half as they did drive it down the field but couldn’t convert on 4th and 13 — leading to a turnover on downs at the Pittsburgh 28-yard line.

The rest of the third quarter turned out to be unremarkable as both teams could not put any points on the scoreboard. Heading into the fourth quarter, time was running out for the Spartans to make a comeback, and the situation looked dire.

After receiving a punt from Pittsburgh, the Spartans would compose one of the most extensive drives of the game. From the Pittsburgh 15-yard line (MSU) Thorne passed to (MSU) tight end Connor Heyward, who made a tough contact catch between two defenders for a 15-yard touchdown. The Spartans failed to convert the 2-point attempt 21-16.

Pittsburgh’s next drive would go nowhere again, and the ball would return to the Spartans. They picked the right time to put another drive together in the fourth quarter. (MSU) Thorne made some big completions on 3rd and 10 situations to keep the Spartans intact throughout. Eventually, (MSU) Thorne would connect with (MSU) Reed once again for a 22-yard touchdown pass. (MSU) Reed made a Randy Moss-type catch when he raised over his defender and brought it into himself to give the Spartans the lead. Following a successful two-point conversion this time around from (MSU) Thorne to (MSU) Nailor 24-21.

The Pittsburgh Panthers would have one last drive to win with two minutes left in the ball game. Third-string quarterback (Pitt) Beville would make some under pressure completions to his receivers to put them at the Michigan State 34-yard line. On 1st and 10 with under a minute left, Pittsburgh had the chance to tie the game with a field goal or go for it all with a touchdown. (Pitt) Beville would drop back and have his pass intercepted by (MSU) linebacker Cal Haladay. (MSU) Haladay read the play like a book and took the interception to the house for a 78-yard touchdown, sealing the Spartans’ win. It would be the Spartans’ first New Year’s Six Bowl win since 2015.

(MSU) quarterback Payton Thorne would finish the game going 29-50 for 354 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Thorne finished the season with 27 touchdowns, a Michigan State record, and ten interceptions. The Michigan State run game suffered without Kenneth Walker Ⅲ as (MSU) Jordan Simmons rushed 16 times for 23 yards. (MSU) Jalen Nailor was the leading receiver for the Spartans as he caught six balls for 108 yards. Nailor’s counterpart Jayden Reed would also catch six balls for 80 yards and two touchdowns. (Pitt) quarterback Davis Beville would complete 14 passes on 18 attempts for 149 yards, one touchdown and an interception. The leading receiver for Pittsburgh, Jordan Addison, caught seven balls for 114 yards.

The Mel Tucker era at Michigan State has arrived and is here to stay. The future is bright as Payton Thorne, Jayden Reed, Xavier Henderson, along with a couple of productive transfers will all be back next season. However, the team will miss Kenneth Walker III and Jalen Nailor as they are headed to the NFL draft. This victory mark’s the end of this year’s Spartan season, which almost seemed like a fantasy. Going forward, Spartan fans have a lot to be excited about.