No. 10 Michigan State reached 11 wins on the season with gutsy, dramatic win over No. 12 Pittsburgh in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, 31-21.
MSU got off to a fast start from the very first play of the game. Redshirt senior punter Stephen Rusnak took the opening kickoff and placed it perfectly pinning Pittsburgh at its own two-yard line. The MSU defense forced a three-and-out and a solid punt return from redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed set the Spartan offense up at the Panthers' 29-yard line.
Michigan State capitalized on the field position three plays later on a jump ball, single-coverage pass from redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne to Reed for a 28-yard score and a 7-0 lead with just 1:49 taken off the game clock.
After the nightmare start, the Pittsburgh offense got rolling on the back of redshirt junior quarterback Nick Patti, who got the start in place of Heisman Trophy Finalist Kenny Pickett. MSU struggled to contain Patti, who weaponized his legs to extend multiple plays. The Panthers drove down the field with ease and a 16-yard scramble by Patti tied the game at seven apiece.
However, the touchdown came at a price for Pitt. As Patti dove for the pylon, he landed awkwardly on his shoulder and immediately went back to the locker room. Patti returned to the bench with his left arm in a sling and redshirt sophomore quarterback Davis Beville took over as the starter for the remainder of the game.
The Spartans answered the Panthers' scoring drive with an easy march down the field into the Pittsburgh red zone. A holding penalty by redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Spencer Brown, who got the start at right tackle over redshirt sophomore Kevin Jarvis, backed MSU up and forced a short field goal from graduate kicker Matt Coghlin.
With Pittsburgh on its third-string quarterback in Beville, the Panthers struggled to move the ball until Michigan State made its first big mistake of the game.
The MSU offense moved smoothly down the field near the end of the second quarter and the Spartans threatened to extend their three-point lead. Thorne, who had been sharp all half, made a costly mistake attempting to loft a pass to redshirt freshman tight end Maliq Carr. He did not see the safety, redshirt sophomore Brandon Hill, who read the play and came up with the easy interception.
The turnover quickly flipped the momentum, and the Pitt offense yet again woke up. Beville found Biletnikoff Trophy Winner and sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison across the middle, who turned it upfield to the left sideline for a 52-yard catch-and-run, putting the Panthers in business.
Three plays later, Beville found junior wide receiver Jared Wayne for a four-yard touchdown and suddenly Pittsburgh led 14-10 at the half.
It was another quick start to the half, this time for Pitt. After two consecutive ugly throws from Thorne, one of which was an under-thrown deep ball to redshirt junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor who had a step on his defender, Thorne ran up the middle on third down, but lost the ball on the way to the ground. Redshirt senior linebacker Cam Bright scooped it up and bolted 26 yards for a touchdown with just 19 seconds taken off the clock.
Michigan State got the ball moving after the turnover, but MSU's kicking woes left Head Coach Mel Tucker with a tough decision. Facing a fourth and 13 on the Pittsburgh 28, the Spartans elected to go for it instead of attempting the field goal to make it a one-possession game. Thorne tried to find Nailor streaking for the end zone, but the two could not connect and Pitt forced the turnover on downs.
The MSU defense was stupendous in the third quarter, allowing just one first down and more importantly keeping the green and white within striking distance.
The Spartan offense started the quarter on a fresh series and finally played with some sense of urgency some quick throws delivered by Thorne. Redshirt senior tight end Connor Heyward was the man of the drive, first converting a fourth and six that may have been a touchdown had the referees not called Heyward out of bounds. Then, he made a phenomenal up-the-ladder catch in the end zone to give MSU life. A false start and a failed two-point conversion by Michigan State held Pittsburgh's lead at 21-16 midway through the fourth quarter.
MSU's defense stepped up again forcing a three-and-out, highlighted by a fantastic run stop by sophomore safety Angelo Grose on third and short.
The Spartan offense, with its back against the wall after an iffy performance through three quarters, rose up to the occasion. A trio of third-down conversions flew MSU all the way to the Pittsburgh 22 and the Spartans were threatening to take the lead. With its star junior running back Kenneth Walker III not playing for MSU, Thorne had to turn to another one of its stars, and who better than his high school buddy, Reed.
Thorne lifted the bread-and-butter pass to the short right corner of the end zone and Reed made the catch while drawing a pass interference to give MSU a three-point lead with just under three minutes to play.
But like it had all game long, the Michigan State defense was there to save the day. With Pittsburgh driving down the field, redshirt freshman linebacker Cal Haladay jumped the route and ran for a pick-six, his second of the season, to seal the 11 win season for MSU.
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