The Michigan State Spartans defeated the Pittsburgh Panthers 31-21 in the 2021 Peach Bowl on Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta to close out the season with an 11-2 record, the program's best finish since 2015.
The Spartans finished third in the Big Ten East Division to earn their first bowl appearance since 2019, when they defeated Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Michigan State's performance on Thursday was impressive, especially because the team was without star running back Kenneth Walker III, who opted out to prepare for the 2022 NFL draft.
Payton Thorne, QB, MSU: 29/50 for 354 YDS, 3 TD, 1 INT and 10 CAR for 4 YDS
Davis Beville, QB, PITT: 14/18 for 149 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT
Jayden Reed, WR, MSU: 6 REC for 80 YDS, 2 TD
Jordan Addison, WR, PITT: 7 REC for 114 YDS
Jalen Nailor, WR, MSU: 6 REC for 108 YDS
Late Push From MSU Seals Win Despite Poor Rushing Performance
Obviously, replacing Walker is no easy task. The Walter Camp and Doak Walker Award winner finished with 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground in his first season with the Spartans after transferring from Wake Forest.
Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker even acknowledged that it would be challenging to replace Walker while meeting with reporters earlier this week.
"It's hard to replace a guy like Ken, you really can't do that, but we have other players obviously on our roster at that position that are going to be next man up and they're going to step up and get the job done," Tucker said. "We have a plan for that, and I feel really good about our run game right now in our preparation."
Walker averaged 137.2 yards per game this season. The Spartans opted to give Jordon Simmons most of his workload on Thursday, and it didn't work out so well.
Simmons finished the game with just 23 yards on 16 carries. As a whole, the MSU offense finished with just 56 rushing yards, which is far lower than the 185.6 yards on the ground they were averaging entering the Peach Bowl.
Despite Simmons' underwhelming performance, fans should look forward to seeing him as the team's top running back in 2022. He entered the Peach Bowl with 54 carries for 255 yards, in addition to six receptions for 24 yards and a touchdown.
Simmons also led Michigan State in rushing last year and proved he could be a top running back earlier this season when he rushed for 121 yards against Youngstown State in September.
Despite the poor rushing performance, Payton Thorne got the job done under center, leading two late touchdown drives to capture the win. Receivers Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed, who finished with a combined 188 yards, were also instrumental in the win.
It should also be noted that Tucker agreed to a 10-year, $95 million contract earlier this season to continue serving as MSU's head coach. He's been a big reason the Spartans turned things around in 2021, and he'll only continue to have a positive impact on the program moving forward.
Pittsburgh Defense Comes Up Big, but Offense Falters Without Pickett
For Pittsburgh, Thursday's Peach Bowl was supposed to be all about junior quarterback Nick Patti, who has sat behind Pickett throughout his college career.
However, Patti exited in the first frame after rushing for a 16-yard touchdown with 7:57 left in the quarter. He went to the sideline and was taken to the locker room by Pittsburgh's medical staff.
Patti later emerged from the locker room with his jersey off and his left arm in a sling, signaling that he was done for the night. Sophomore quarterback Davis Beville was then thrust into the starting lineup.
Not much was expected from the third-string quarterback, and he didn't do enough under center. He completed 14 of 18 passes for 149 yards and one touchdown and one late, costly interception.
Pittsburgh's top receiver Jordan Addison had seven catches for 114 yards and no touchdowns. Entering Thursday night, Addison was averaging 113.8 yards per game. It was his second straight game without a touchdown catch.
The big reason the Panthers were even in Thursday's game was because of their defense.
The Spartans were controlling play through much of the first half until Panthers defensive back Brandon Hill picked off MSU quarterback Payton Thorne with 2:03 remaining in the second quarter.
The Panthers turned that pick into a touchdown when Beville hit wide receiver Jared Wayne for a four-yard score just before halftime. That score helped give Pittsburgh a 14-10 lead.
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.<a href="https://twitter.com/DBthaQB11?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@DBthaQB11</a> ➡️ <a href="https://twitter.com/jwayne_?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@jwayne_</a> 🎯<a href="https://twitter.com/Pitt_FB?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Pitt_FB</a> takes the lead before half 😤 <a href="https://t.co/mUEnKZD16q">pic.twitter.com/mUEnKZD16q</a>
The Spartans got the ball to start the second half, but the Pittsburgh defense forced Thorne into another costly turnover when defensive lineman John Morgan III recovered a fumble for a touchdown to help give the Panthers a 21-10 lead.
The Panthers held the Spartans scoreless in the third quarter, but the defense eventually ran out of gas, allowing two four-quarter TDs.
In terms of the quarterback position, the Panthers are still in a good spot for 2022 after receiving a commitment from Kedon Slovis, who announced he would be transferring to Pittsburgh from USC earlier this month.
"I was so excited when Coach Narduzzi called, because I knew that Pitt and this program were the right fit for me to keep developing into the best leader I can be," Slovis wrote in a piece for The Players' Tribune. "I'm ready to win now — and talking to the players who are returning, and seeing how hungry they are for next season, that got me pumped. They have a lot of talented players coming back. And, man … getting to throw the ball to the guy who just won the Biletnikoff?? That's something you don't pass up. The culture and identity that Coach Narduzzi has created is everything I want to be a part of."