The Offense started fast, moving the ball and scoring on the first two drives, but then stalled out for more than two-quarters. Pitt did a good job stopping the MSU run game and the Spartans did a good job stopping themselves during that stretch. Frustrations multiplied as MSU did not run the ball well, did not catch the ball often enough, and got in their own way with drive stalling Penalty Flags. It snowballed to leave a big hole in the midsection of the Peach Bowl.
Late in the 2nd Quarter it looked like the Spartans had a chance to snap out of it. The Spartans were driving, MSU would get the ball back after the Half, and things looked good for the pivotal “middle-eight” after Atlanta area native Jordon Simmons converted a 3rd Down run to put MSU inside the Pitt 30-yardline. Then things went wrong in a hurry for Payton Thorne. His 1st Down pass was picked off at the Pitt 13 by Brandon Hill, and Panthers snatched the game’s momentum with an 87-yard drive to go up 14-10.
Out of Halftime on just the third play, Thorne and the MSU Offense hit rock bottom. Thorne tried to scramble for what he could under pressure, but had the ball popped out and into the hands of Cam Bright, who took it 26-yards the other way to put Pitt comfortably up and in control, 21-10. What looked like a great opportunity for the Spartans to regain control through the middle-eight turned into Panther explosion that pushed MSU deep into its heels, and out of room for any more error.
Thorne was out of sync. Some of his passes were out of rhythm, some wobbled, and others were plain dropped. Life was not easy for the Offense without Doak Walker Award winner Kenneth Walker, III, but fortunately they still had the 4th Quarter to play and a trending Defense that got them the ball back to start the final-fifteen.
The Spartan Offense wasn’t perfect in the final quarter but they were close to it and played their best when it was needed most. Thorne was 8 for 10 on the 70-yard drive that cut the lead to 21-16, but MSU got in its own way one last time with a False Start on the 2-point try. Those yards could not quite be made up on the longer conversion try. That seemed to turn Thorne’s fire up to full blast, and at the same time started the Panthers’ process of feeling the game begin to slip away.
The Offense got the ball back with 5:32 left and it was up to Thorne to go snatch the Peach. After a nifty grab and lunge from Maliq Carr on 3rd and 10, MSU was into Pitt territory. On 2nd and 10 from the 36, the game’s biggest controversy struck. Jalen Nailor had good position on the Pitt defender going down the MSU sideline when contact and interference appeared to arrive as the ball approached, but no Flag was thrown and the ball bounced out of bounds. Mel Tucker was right there, so was host of howling Spartan fans, loud and angry with the critical looking non-call. Tucker’s conversation with officials was measured and carried into Timeout Pitt called, and even looked to carry over after the end of that drive. But that drive was not over just yet.
Out of the Timeout, on 3rd & 10, the Spartans knew what they had to do and Nailor bounced back with one of the all-time cathces in MSU Bowl history. High highlight grab put the ball at the Pitt 22, with momentum shading green in a hurry. So many of the vast Spartan Nation knew were the ball was probably going next, and for maybe the final time at MSU, Thorne to Reed was true magic again.
Thorne saw Jayden Reed lined up one on one, put it up for Reed to go get, and the offensive Peach Bowl MVP was decided in the same corner as Reed’s first Touchdown, putting the Spartans back in the lead, 22-21. This time, the 2-point conversion went off without a hitch as Thorne swiftly found Nailor to put Michigan State up 24-21. After the rough stretch following the game’s first drives, Thorne ripened on time like the sweetest of Georgia’s Peaches.
The Spartans ended up throwing it 50-times, spreading the ball out to eight different receivers and getting big plays from Reed, Nailor, Keon Coleman (did you see his back flips after the game?), Carr, and Atlanta area native Connor Heyward, who’s versatility and grit started the 4th Quarter scoring for MSU. Most predictors felt this game would come down to how well MSU could move the ball through the air, with nearly the impossible task of replacing Kenneth Walker. Though it looked pretty bad for most of the 2021 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, the Spartan Offense was almost perfect when they needed it most.
MSU’s Defense couldn’t know what to expect with Panthers’ backup quarterback Nick Patti taking over for All-American and Johnny Unitas Award winner Kenny Pickett, who opted out to preserve himself for the NFL Draft. Unfortunately for Pitt, Patti didn’t last long, breaking his collar bone on an inspired lunge for the pylon while scoring Pitt’s first touchdown of the day.
The Panthers had to go even deeper and call on the big sophomore Davis Beville for the remaining 47:33. That added more stress to the Pitt running game, and gave the Spartan Defense a clearer idea of what had to be done from there. Once again, the Spartans held an opponent to 21 points or less. Michigan State finished the 2021 season 11-2, and opponents were held to less than three-scores (24-points or less) eight times. Say what you will about this defense in 2021, but also rattle off that hard-number statistic when you do. It is in ink for good. You might also mention that the Defense got off the field on 10 of 12 Pitt 3rd Downs in the 2021 Peach Bowl.
To Pitt’s credit, they fought hard to produce a strong running effort. Pitt ran for 134-positive yards (taking out -30 for sacks) when everyone watching knew they had to run it well. But the Spartan Defense also knew they could start to turn the game if they kept the Panthers out of the end zone in the 2nd Half. The only Pitt Touchdown in the final 31:02 came less than a minute into the 3rd Quarter after Thorne fumbled and Pitt’s Cam Bright scooped and scored. The Defense locked the Pitt Offense down the rest of the way, keeping the Spartans in reach.
As the Spartan Offense began moving the biggest issue for Pitt looked more likely to become the deciding factor. There’s only so many practice reps your third-string Quarterback can get during a season, let alone pre he can do to jump into a New Years’ Six Bowl against a 10th ranked opponent. The Spartan Defense sent the Pitt Offense off the field in four-snaps the entire 2nd Half until the game’s final drive, when Beville impressively converted a 4th and 8 from his own 21. Beville next hit on three passes in a row, and suddenly the Panthers were at the MSU 26 looking good for at least a chance to tie. It also looked like a good time for Mel Tucker to spend one of his three Timeouts, but neither he nor the Scottie Hazelton coordinated Defense ever hinted a flinch.
The final fireworks exploded on that 1st Down from the MSU 26 when eastern Pennsylvania native and true throwback Linebacker Cal Haladay capped off the night. The Spartans most crafty and probably instinctual defender picked Beville off, bypassed the thought of taking a knee, and tested his legs near the sideline 78-yards to send the Spartan Nation into one final frenzy. Haladay’s pick six was a shocking dagger that left the Panthers just 22-seconds left on the clock. They did not recover.
Pitt was so out of sorts that they completely botched the final kick off and MSU jumped on it at the Panther-22. That was all due to Haladay’s haul back and the fine work of the Spartan Defense down the stretch. Haladay’s effort goes down as one of the biggest plays from an MSU defender in modern Spartan history. The Red-Shirt Freshman took the ball back, took the Peach Bowl for good, and picked up defensive MVP honors all at once. For a unit more maligned than they probably deserved, and praised a bit less than they honestly earned, what a satisfying ending for the 2021 Spartan Defense.
You know to watch out for these plays during bowl season, they often get funky. Tonight was no different. Matt Coghlin seemed less than 100% healthy after he missed a pretty short (33-yard) Field Goal early in the 2nd Quarter. His health status seemed to affect Spartan decisions on 4th Downs and conversion tries the rest of the night. Coghlin did hit a 36-yarder late in the 1st to add a one final entry to his long list of Field Goals in green and white. It may take some work to figure out which is longer, his final Spartan hair length or that half-decade long list of 3-point kicks.
The Spartans return game didn’t get a chance to do much, which you have to credit to Pitt, but they did avoid any big mistakes like we saw on the final kicking play of the game. Once again, Bryce Baringer put his foot on the ball nicely, dropping two of his three inside the 20 to give the Spartans a field position edge. Baringer will be a force again in 2022, as should the Spartan Special Teams unit.
It’s hard to put true value on this 4th Quarter comeback for Mel Tucker’s Spartans. In a year where so much went so well for MSU, from literally the first snap, this one looked like it was headed in the wrong direction for most of the night. The Offense just did not look like they would ever get going without Kenneth Walker, MSU’s x-factor all year. But Connor Heyward and other Spartan vets kept chopping, pulling, and straining to get back in the Peach Bowl. As they did, Payton Thorne found his form, and all of the sudden the best looking starting Quarterback in MSU history after one-year had a comeback Peach Bowl win over a 12th ranked team to build on for the future. This was a huge night for Michigan State Football, filling Spartan Nation with peak optimism, and setting Spartan Football up for quite a run through heart of the 2020s.
11-wins seasons are no small feat. There’s so little room for error when all but a few teams in the country play more than 13-games in a season. The 2021 Spartans were already a great story before the Peach Bowl comeback. MSU won 10-games for the seventh time in the last twelve years. We talked last time in detail about how that stacks up with the rest of College Football, and you can imagine how thin the list gets when zoom in on the more exclusive 11-wins or more club. This is Michigan State Football’s first 11-win season since 2015, but their sixth in the last twelve years! That’s the Spartan Football brand these days, folks. And Mel Tucker’s time chopping…it’s just getting started.
This is the final article of the Spartan Football Essentials series. As always, thanks for taking a look, and stay tuned to Spartan Nation for big things in 2022.