Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA — December 30, 2021
The 10th-ranked Michigan State Spartans took their 10-2 record to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta to take on the 12th-ranked 11-2 Pitt Panthers.
The Spartans will be without their All-American and Doak Walker Award winner (emblematic of the best running back in the nation) Kenneth Walker III. Pitt will start backup quarterback Nick Patti as their year-long starter, Kenny Pickett, joined Walker in opting out of the game while declaring for the NFL Draft.
Michigan State entered the game as 3.5-point favorites against a Panther team looking to be the first Pittsburg squad to be a 12 game-winner since their 1976 squad went 12-0 and won the National Championship.
After Pitt mishandled the opening kickoff they started their 1st drive from their own 2-yard line. The Spartan defense held for a three and out and a punt of just 43 yds was returned by Jayden Reed for 16-yards to the Pitt 29.
Three plays later Michigan State scored when quarterback Payton Thorne connected with Reed for a 28-yard TD.
The Panthers responded with a drive on the following possession that saw Patti scramble for 16 yards and a dive to the pylon for the tying score. Unfortunately, Patti was injured on the play and the signal calling duties fell to 3rd string backup quarterback Davis Beville.
Michigan State kicker Matt Coghlin converted a 36-yd field goal try late in the first quarter to move the Spartans on top 10-7. Coghlin’s miss from 33-yards early in the 2nd wasted an 8-play 53-yard drive deep into Pitt territory.
An interception of Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne on the Pitt 13-yard line stymied another scoring opportunity with 2:03 left until the half.
Inspired by their defense, Pitt drove the length of the field and scored on a 4-yard TD pass from Beville to Jared Wayne in just over a minute. Making the halftime score Pitt 14, Michigan State 10.
Michigan State opened the 3rd quarter taking the kickoff. Two incompletions followed by a Thorne scramble on 3rd down proved disastrous. The Spartan quarterback fumbled the ball which was quickly scooped up by the Panther defense and returned for a score. Putting Pitt up 21-10 just 20 seconds into the 2nd half.
It looked as though Michigan State would turn the ball back over to Pitt after failing to make a first down on their next possession. However, Spartan head coach Mel Tucker sensed his team needed a spark. A fake punt on 4th down was converted and the green machine offense shrugged off the doldrums.
But the drive stalled at the Pitt 28-yard line when Thorne’s 4th and 13 yards to go pass to the endzone was broken up by the Pitt defense.
State’s defense held for a three and out and Pitt punted the ball back to the Spartans 16-yard line. Both teams traded possessions for the remainder of the quarter as the game transitioned into a defensive struggle.
Trailing by 11, time was running out on the Spartans who needed to find a solution to the swarming Pitt defense. Thorne was 5 of 14 for just 34-yards in the 2nd half until he finally caught fire.
Leading the Spartans inside the 10-yard line it looked like the drive might fizzle out after a penalty and a sack by Pitt. Thorne’s 15-yard TD pass to Connor Heyward cut the deficit to 5 points with just over 8 minutes to play. The 2-point conversion attempt failed, leaving the score Pitt 21, Michigan State 16.
Another three and out by the Pitt offense and they punted the ball back to Michigan State on 4th down. The Spartans began their drive on their own 29-yard line needing a touchdown to take the lead, with 5:37 remaining in the game.
It took the Spartans just under 3 minutes to put the ball in the end zone and take the lead. The TD pass was the 50th attempt of the evening for Thorne who’s 29 completions accounted for 354 yards and all 3 TD’s on the evening. This time the 2-point conversion was good and Michigan State led 24-21 with 2:51 left to play.
Things looked bleak for the Panthers as they had made only one first down in the 2nd half. Somehow, Beville, the guy that had thrown only four passes all year for Pitt, drove his team inside the Spartan 30-yard line. Easily within field goal range, it appeared the game would be tied and go to overtime.
The Spartan defense stiffened and came up with an interception that they turned into a pick-6 to lock up the win 31-21. Just to be sure, on the ensuing kickoff the ball was kicked short and Michigan State jumped on the loose pigskin near the Pitt 20 yard line.
Upset avoided in what would have been an embarrassing loss for the guys from East Lansing. Michigan State finished the year with an 11-2 record.