After very little went right through three quarters for No. 10 Michigan State, the Spartans put together a fourth quarter comeback to beat No. 12 Pittsburgh, 31-21, in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor were terrific for Michigan State. The former had six catches for 80 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while the latter went for 108 yards on six receptions. Payton Thorne battled through some early struggles to lead the Spartan comeback, and closed out his 2021 season in memorable fashion.
Meanwhile, Mel Tucker is killing it in East Lansing. After a tumultuous 2-5 season in 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tucker and his staff bounced back in a huge way this season. Michigan State won 11 games for the first time since 2015, and all signs point to this program remaining a factor in the Big Ten for years to come.
Without further ado, here are my biggest takeaways from the Spartans' victory in the Peach Bowl.
1. Michigan State's defense won the game
When Michigan State absolutely needed it, their defense stepped up and won this football game. Yes, it helps that Pittsburgh was down to their third-string quarterback, but any time your defense allows only 14 points and 274 total yards in modern college football, that's a great effort. It's fitting that Cal Haladay ended the game with a pick-6, because he was phenomenal in this game. The redshirt freshman led the team with 11 tackles. Pittsburgh wide receiver Jordan Addison had a big day, with 7 catches for 114 yards, but the Spartans kept him out of the endzone, and that's what matters most. Great defensive effort from MSU.
2. Payton Thorne struggles, breaks record and completes the comeback
Michigan State's quarterback got out to a fast start, throwing a excellent fade route touchdown to Jayden Reed on the Spartans' first possession. However, after that nice start, something seemed to shake the QB's confidence. Thorne took a few hard hits from Pittsburgh's defense in the second and third quarters -- maybe that affected the quarterback's psyche, but for whatever reason, he was not sharp. But Thorne bounced back in a huge way in the fourth quarter, completing 14-of-19 attempts for 145 yards and two touchdowns. The first was a perfect ball to tight end Connor Heyward -- who made a real nice catch -- to cut the deficit to 21-16 with 8:06 left in the game. With that touchdown pass, Thorne broke MSU's single-season record for passing touchdowns with 26. Kirk Cousins was the previous record-holder, throwing 25 TDs in 2011. The redshirt sophomore wasn't done there. When the Spartans needed another play, he went back to the reliable Reed on another fade rout in the final three minutes for his third TD of the day. For the game, Thorne completed 29-of-50 pass attempts for 354 yards to go along with the three scores. He finishes the season with 27 passing touchdowns.
3. Missed opportunities by offense
Pittsburgh was down to their third-string quarterback after just two offensive series. Panther backup QB Nick Patti had to leave the game after injuring his shoulder on a 16-yard touchdown scramble. Patti started the Peach Bowl because regular starter Kenny Pickett is a sure-fire first round draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and opted out of the bowl game. With Pitt down to third-stringer Davis Bevelle, Michigan State had a chance to seize control of the game. The Spartans' defense forced three consecutive punts after Patti's injury, and clearly had Bevelle rattled. However, Michigan State did not extend its lead. Kicker Matt Coughlin, who's been battling injury, missed a short field goal. Thorne also threw an interception that ended another promising drive. As a result, Pittsburgh scored a touchdown on their last drive of the half to take a 14-10 lead into the locker room. Instead of the Spartans taking control of the game, momentum was seized by Pitt. On the first possession of the second half, the Panthers recovered a Payton Thorne fumble and returned it for a touchdown, extending their lead. However, Michigan State made the plays they needed to in the fourth quarter, showing that resiliency and grittiness that we've seen multiple times this season.
4. MSU's run game gets stuffed
The absence of Kenneth Walker was definitely felt in the Peach Bowl. Michigan State was never able to establish anything on the ground, averaging just _._ yards per carry (sack adjusted). With Thorne being out of rhythm, being able to turn to the run game would have been beneficial for the Spartans, and forced Pittsburgh to play honest defensively. As it played out, Thorne was able to make enough plays to put Michigan State in position to win the game, but the lack of a run game is troublesome. The Spartans need to improve along the offensive line in 2022. You're not going to find a Kenneth Walker in the transfer portal every offseason. Without their star tailback, Michigan State only rushed for 57 yards on 35 attempts. That's no where near good enough.
5. A special end to a special season
Michigan State has now won three New Year's Six/BCS bowl games in four appearances over the last nine seasons. To put that in perspective, the Spartans had just three wins in bowls of that caliber in school history prior to 2013, and only five total appearances. In addition, Mel Tucker just went 11-2 in his first full season in East Lansing. This program is in a great spot right now. Tucker brought in a Top 25 recruiting for 2022, and has momentum on the recruiting trail after this excellent season. We can't wait to see where Michigan State football goes from here.