Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker has already made his presence known in the state of Georgia through recruiting, but Thursday was a warning shot to the college football world as the Spartans took some hardware back to East Lansing with a 31-21 comeback win over Panthers in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
A look inside the moments that won MSU the Peach Bowl
The Kenneth Walker III-less Spartans had success early thanks to freshman kicker Stephen Rusnak’s well-placed kick, pinning the Panthers inside their own five-yard line. Combining a mixture of good field position and early-game heroics from the high school-to-college duo redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne and redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed, the Spartans were able to draw first blood.
With its star quarterback Kenny Pickett opting out of the bowl game and declared for the NFL Draft, Pitt turned to redshirt junior quarterback Nick Patti. Scrambling toward the endzone and leaping toward the pylon, Patti evened the score with 7:37 left in the first quarter. But, his debut was short-lived, as he went down with a shoulder injury after scoring the touchdown. He didn't return to the game.
Meanwhile, on the Spartan sideline, graduate student kicker Matt Coghlin, a staple of consistency in this Spartan offense, was nursing an injury of his own; Coghlin didn't attempt a single practice kick before the game. It would've been easy to assume he'd be an impactful scratch from the game, like his teammate junior linebacker Quavaris Crouch, who helped hold down the other side of the ball all season after transferring from Tennessee this past spring. But, after Reed's touchdown, Coghlin trotted onto the field and drilled the extra point.
He followed Patti's touchdown with a 36-yard field goal, giving the Spartans a 10-7 lead heading into the second quarter.
Michigan State was up by three points, and Pitt was down to its third-string quarterback, redshirt sophomore Davis Beville, when things started to fall apart, and the Spartans offensive drought began, starting with a missed 33-yard field goal by Coghlin.
Unable to generate any momentum in the second quarter, the Spartans gave up a touchdown with 1:29 left in the half on a pass from Beville to junior wide receiver Jared Wayne.
The third quarter would spell more of the same. The Spartans struggled to get the ball into the endzone, or even get close, for that matter. A string of third-and-longs and empty-handed possessions, coupled with a Thorne fumble that was returned for six by redshirt-senior linebacker Cam Bright, propelled Pitt to a 21-10 lead. And their fans were all in.
Michigan State, entering the fourth quarter, looked down and out. The 'Go Green' chants had silenced, and all hope seemed to be lost for the game at hand. To have any kind of chance, the Spartans needed a big-time spark.
Who would be better than redshirt senior tight end and Georgia native Connor Heyward, who redeemed his career after looking to depart the program just two years ago after he fell behind in the depth chart? Sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne looked to his tight end early and often at the beginning of the fourth quarter and eventually found him in the back of the endzone to revive the green and white.
At 21-16, Heyward's touchdown put the Spartans right back into a game they seemed to tune out of early in the second quarter. And the fans woke up, too.
Support student media! Please consider donating to The State News and help fund the future of journalism.
Michigan State’s defense did its job getting the Panthers’ offense off the field, giving Thorne and the MSU offense a chance for victory.
This was a Spartan team that never should have been here after a 2-5 season a year ago. It had to be a storybook ending to get them to 11-2. What better way to do that than to have Thorne connect with his old middle school teammate Jayden Reed in the back corner of the endzone over top of a Pitt defender, Randy Moss style?
The 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter were enough to give the Spartans their lead back and reinvigorate a green and white crowd that had seemingly disappeared in the second and third quarter, but they weren't out of the clear yet. Pitt had the ball, time and was one score away from tying it or taking the lead for good.
The fate of the Peach Bowl and all future retellings of this season rested on the Spartan's defense. Michigan State needed its secondary to hold on tight for nearly three minutes. That’s when its gloveless, gritty hero Cal Haladay dropped right back into the passing lane, ending the Panthers’ hopes and securing a 31-21 victory.
What better way to end this Spartan Dawg story, a remarkable season, than with a trophy, celebration and fight song?