Depending on which numbers you looked at, there were a few different conclusions that could have been made about the Michigan State defense through the regular season.
On one hand, there was 3.17, the amount of MSU sacks per game, good for a top-12 pass rush in the country. And there was 119.4, the amount of rushing yards per game, good for top-20 in the nation.
Then on the other hand there was this glaring, stinky number that was the talk of the defense: 337.7 passing yards surrendered per game. It was the worst mark in the country, 25.9 yards worse than the next team, Duke. For a team coached by Mel Tucker, it was maddening given his background as a defensive coach, particularly in the secondary.
For a large part of the season, the script was mostly the same. The offense put up the points and the defense did as much as it could to slow down the opposition.
But with star junior running back Kenneth Walker III opting out to pursue his future in the NFL, the script of Michigan State’s 31-21 Peach Bowl win over Pittsburgh was flipped. It was the defense that kept MSU in the game.
“The preparation leading up to this game was outstanding,” Tucker said. “Scottie (Hazelton) and the entire defensive staff put together a great plan, never wasted a minute of preparation.”
Coming into Thursday’s matchup versus the ACC Champions, Michigan State knew the Panthers too would be without their star offensive player redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett. When a team does not have to face a Heisman Trophy Finalist, it helps.
The Spartans played against what was handed to them, and that was redshirt junior quarterback Nick Patti, whose inexperience despite tenure led to uncertainty. He previously made just one career start two years ago versus Delaware. Besides that, playing time for Patti was scarce.
After freshman kicker Stephen Rusnak beautifully pinned Pitt at its own two yard line on the opening kickoff, the Michigan State defense trotted onto the field with a vendetta. On the first play, MSU stuffed Pittsburgh’s running back for no gain, followed by a pair of incompletions. The quick three-and-out set the tone for the Spartan defense, which played with physicality and discipline.
The ensuing punt return by redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed set up MSU’s offense deep in Panther territory. Three plays later, redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne chucked a ball to Reed in the endzone and Michigan State took a 7-0 lead just 1:49 into the game.
Pittsburgh’s offense woke up and with an early seven-point hole Patti was settled in. He led the Panthers down the field and capped it off with a 16-yard rushing touchdown, but it came with a price. As Patti dove for the pylon, he landed awkwardly on his left shoulder. He immediately went to the locker room and did not return to the game. Pittsburgh Head Coach Pat Narduzzi revealed after the game that Patti had suffered a broken collarbone.
Into the game came redshirt sophomore Davis Beville, Pitt’s third-string quarterback. Again, the MSU defense played with what was handed to them and the momentum for the majority of the first half favored the green and white.
Late in the second quarter, the MSU offense was positioned well in Pittsburgh territory, threatening to extend its 10-7 lead. But, a poor throw by Thorne was picked off by the Panthers and the momentum flipped 180 degrees. A 52-yard catch and run by sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison helped set up a Pitt touchdown and all of a sudden Michigan State trailed 14-10 at the half.
Thorne was clearly rattled by the interception and was not nearly himself. A strip-sack touchdown to start the second half gave Pittsburgh an 11-point lead and the supporters wearing blue and yellow were rocking while those in green and white were silent. Follow that with three straight possessions by MSU without any points, and the wheels felt inches away from completely falling off.
However, MSU’s defense kept its head in the game and dominated the second half, allowing just 93 yards, four first downs and zero points.
“I didn’t think we had to make any adjustments,” redshirt freshman linebacker Cal Haladay said. “We just had to clean up how we were playing. Our adjustments just were tackle better, drive on the ball better, break, just doing the little things better.”
The MSU offense responded, dramatically taking the lead, 24-21, with under three minutes to play. It was Haladay though who put the cherry on top with his late pick-six to seal the win and an 11 win season for Tucker in just his second year as head coach. The play was eerily similar to Haladay’s first pick-six of the season against Indiana.
“In my mind I was just thinking I’m probably going to get yelled at a little bit because I’m supposed to go down in that situation,” Haladay said, who was awarded the bowl’s Defensive MVP and led the team with 11 total tackles. “But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity in my head.”
Bowl games, especially one’s on a big stage, are often an opportunity for programs to end the season on a high note and head into the offseason with momentum. Through 12 regular-season games, the MSU defense was certainly not feeling the way it wanted to. But with a performance like tonight, it is something to build on heading into 2022.
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“They believe in what they are doing,” Tucker said about the defense’s performance. “The past is not necessarily predictive of the future unless you don’t change the behavior.”
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