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They...Are...Spartans! MSU Inflicts Their Will in 4th Q Surge to Victory

Posted on December 30, 2021 at 11:30 PM

  Article by Dan Tortora

  The first of the New Year's Six Bowl games came to us right before the ball dropped, with the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl kicking off from Atlanta, Georgia, featuring the Pittsburgh Panthers of the Atlantic Coast Cofnerence (ACC) and the Michigan State Spartans of the Big Ten Conference.

  Pittsburgh entered the Mercedes-Benz Stadium fresh off of their first-ever ACC Championship victory, giving them an overall record of 11-2, after winning the ACC Coastal Division for the second time since becoming a part of the conference in 2013, giving them two ACC divisional titles in Head Coach Pat Narduzzi's seven years at the helm.

  This game served as Narduzzi's first match-up against his former team since leaving to become the Panthers' Head Coach in 2015. He served as the Spartans' Defensive Coordinator from 2007-14 and their Assistant Head Coach 2013-14.

  On the opposite sideline, Mel Tucker has come full circle, beginning his coaching career as a defensive graduate assistant in 1997-98 for Michigan State and returning in 2020 as the team's Head Coach.

  Michigan State landed in Atlanta with a record of 10-2 overall and a third-place finish in the East Division of the Big Ten.

  Both teams were without key players who decided to opt out of the Bowl game in anticipation of the 2022 National Football League (NFL) Draft, with the Panthers being without quarterback Kenny Pickett who is coming off of his best collegiate season yet in completion percentage (67.2%), passing yards (4,319), and passing touchdowns (42). Pickett had 42 touchdowns to a mere seven interceptions. In 2021 alone, Pickett eclipsed his passing touchdown total of his previous three seasons at Pittsburgh combined, 42 to 38.

  Michigan State headed to the field without running back Kenneth Walker, III, who had achieved his best rushing yards per carry average in college (6.2) and rushing-yard total (1,636), his first 1,000-yard rushing season ever as a collegiate back. Walker also recorded more rushing touchdowns than in any of his other collegiate seasons, with a personal best of 18 in 2021.

  Ironically, the Panthers did not have to face Walker in this Bowl game or in either of his two previous seasons in the ACC, where he played in the opposite division as Pittsburgh, for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in the Atlantic.

  The Spartans, sans Walker, would be the first to get on the board in this Bowl game, when they scored on the third play of their first possession of the first half when quarterback Payton Thorne found wide receiver Jayden Reed for a 28-yard passing play that made it 7-0 Spartans less than two minutes into the game, at the 13:11 mark.

  Backup quarterback Nick Patti, filling in for Pickett, would answer the score by Michigan State by guiding Pittsburgh on a 12-play drive that concluded with him in the end zone off his own footwork on a 16-yard keeper, tying the contest at 7-7 at the 7:57 mark of the first quarter.

  Michigan State would reply right back with their own 12-play drive that would end in a score, but theirs came through the uprights on a 36-yard make by kicker Matt Coghlin, moving the Spartans back ahead, this time at 10-7 with 2:39 remaining in the opening quarter.

  On the third drive of the contest for Pittsburgh, their third-string quarterback came onto the field, with Davis Beville taking over for an injured Nick Patti. Narduzzi said after the game that the injury to Patti was a broken collarbone.

  Despite the drive that went from the end of the first quarter into the beginning of the second ending in a punt, Beville went 3-for-4 to start his time on the field at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

  Coghlin's second attempt would unfortunately not go as well as the first for Michigan State, with him missing from 33 yards away on the team's first drive of the second quarter.

  The next two possessions by both teams would not fair well, with the Panthers punting away each of theirs and the Spartans punting away the first while Thorne ended up being one in his own side when he threw an interception to Panthers' strong safety Brandon Hill.

  Pittsburgh would capitalize on their takeaway, taking a six-play drive to paydirt, with running back Vincent Davis gaining 21 yards on three carries and Beville going 3-for-3, the last of those passes going to wide receiver Jared Wayne for a four-yard score, Beville's first of the game.

  This touchdown pass was also the first-ever thrown by Beville in his collegiate career, marking the first time he saw "glory territory" being in a New Year's Six Bowl game.

  Beville's pass to Wayne achieved a third feat, moving the Panthers back ahead of the Spartans 14-10, a lead they would hold through to halftime.

  Michigan State would have an opposite start from the first half to the second half, this time losing possession on the third play of their first drive, as opposed to scoring on the third play as they did in their aforementioned opening drive of the match-up. That fumble by Thorne was forced by Panthers' defensive end John Morgan, III, and picked by linebacker Cam Bright who took it 26 yards to the promised land, extending Pittsburgh out to their largest lead of the game, 21-10, just 20 seconds into the second half.

  After being held scoreless in the third quarter, the Spartans would take their opening possession of the fourth quarter into the end zone thanks to Thorne completing his first five passes of the drive and going 8-for-9 overall, with the eighth pass being a 15-yard play to tight end Connor Heyward. Michigan State's two-point attempt was thwarted by Pittsburgh, bringing the score to 21-16 Pittsburgh with 8:06 remaining.

  Following a punt by the Panthers, Thorne would take the Spartans' next drive in for a score as well, going 6-for-10 this time, with the sixth completion coming from Reed for his second score in this Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, thanks to his leaping ability and super-glue grip on what would be the difference in the contest.

  This time around, the two-point attempt was converted, thanks to the hands of wide receiver Jalen Nailor, moving the Spartans out to a field goal's difference, 24-21, with 2:51 to play.

  After being sacked for a loss of seven yards on the second play of the following drive, Beville would complete all five of his pass attempts.

  His sixth attempt of this drive was also caught. However, it unfortunately ended up in the hands of the wrong team, when Beville through right to linebacker Cal Haladay who not only ended Pittsburgh's opportunity to tie or win the game, but would make an even bigger statement when he turned what was a silencer into a rather deafening blast, going 78 yards for a pick-six score, bringing the score to 31-21 Michigan State with 22 seconds to play.

  Seemingly reeling from a fourth quarter where they allowed 21 unanswered points, the Pittsburgh special teams' unit did not even gather the kickoff.

  Cornerback Justin White of Michigan State recovered the kickoff and the Spartans ran out the clock on a fantastic finish by all three phases of the team.

  What once felt like a hole the Spartans would not climb out of turned into a dominating showing of will over adversity as Michigan State finished their season with the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl trophy on an 11-win season.

  Beville, despite the final play, went 14-for-18 for 149 yards with one passing touchdown, respectable numbers for a player who was the third option at quarterback on the depth chart for the Panthers this season.

  Thorne made up for his fumble returned for a touchdown early in the game by aiding Michigan State to an offensive surge in the final quarter. He ended the night 29-for-50 for 354 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception.

  Pittsburgh gained 104 yards on the ground as a team with one touchdown, while Michigan State amounted 56 rushing yards as a team and did not find the end zone on the ground.

  Jordan Addison led all receivers on both teams in catches (7) and yards (114) in the game.

  Nailor and Reed caught six passes apiece, Nailor leading the Spartans with 108 yards and Reed leading the squad in receiving touchdowns, catching two of the three thrown by Thorne. Reed finished second on the Spartans in receiving yards in this game, with 80.

  When the dust settled, each of these teams made no excuses due to opt-outs or injuries.

  They embodied the "next man up" approach to the T.

  Someone had to win this one.

  Every college football game ends with a victor on paper.

  But the talent on both sides cannot and should not go unnoticed.

  Pittsburgh is living in a new world under Narduzzi.

  And Tucker has Michigan State extending its elbows at the table of the Big Ten.

  Game on.

Categories: Atlantic Coast Conference, NCAA, College Football