For the first time since 2015, No. 10 Michigan State is playing in a New Year’s Six bowl as the Spartans are set to take on No. 12 Pittsburgh at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Spartans enter the matchup with a 10-2 record, the ninth double-digit win season in school history. An 11th win on Thursday would make the sixth time Michigan State has reached 11 wins.
MSU was last in action Thanksgiving weekend when the Spartans took down Penn State, 30-27, in a snowy Spartan Stadium. Junior running back Kenneth Walker III rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown while the Michigan State defense was opportunistic with two fumble recoveries and four sacks.
A win on Thursday night versus the Panthers could do wonders for Head Coach Mel Tucker’s program, which is already exceeding expectations in two years. Not only would it help in the recruiting race, which Tucker has planted a large root in Georgia, but would also boost the team’s momentum heading into the offseason.
“I think that we have shown a lot of progress from last year to this year and really from the last few years, honestly, offensively,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne said. “We are looking to build on that this week on Thursday and finish the year out the right way. ... We’re not satisfied with just getting here.”
The Spartans will have to go to battle without their star player, Walker, who opted out of the bowl game in order to prepare for the 2022 NFL Draft. Walker took home a plethora of national awards such as the Walter Camp Player of the Year and the Doak Walker Award, leaving a big hole to be filled at the running back position.
Additionally, Tucker ruled junior linebacker Quavaris Crouch and redshirt senior tight end Tyler Hunt as “doubtful” in addition to junior left tackle Jarrett Horst being ruled “questionable” in a rare injury update on Sunday. Horst has not played since Michigan State’s win over Michigan in late October while Crouch and Hunt each missed the last game versus Penn State. MSU could be down a few other players too with 13 rostered players entering the transfer portal since the end of the regular season. At this point, redshirt junior safety Michael Dowell is the only confirmed player in the portal that will not play.
“If there’s some young guys that we can get some time in there because with time comes more experience, confidence and you begin to play at a new level,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “We will definitely try to do that when it’s appropriate, but obviously we got to try to do what we can to help our team be successful.”
Luckily for Michigan State, they will be getting speedy redshirt junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor back from a hand injury that has sidelined him since Oct. 30. A tandem of Nailor and redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed can be a scary sight for the Pittsburgh defense, as Rutgers learned earlier in the season when Nailor torched the Scarlet Knights for 221 yards and three touchdowns on just five catches.
“When you have both of those guys, they’re obviously a couple of our top skilled guys and their play-making ability speaks for itself,” Johnson said. “I think anytime you have more than one, you hope that can challenge the defense a little bit by who they have to cover and things like that and put more stresses on them.”
Scouting the opponent
Pittsburgh comes into the matchup with an 11-2 record and an ACC Championship under its belt after defeating Wake Forest, 45-21.
The Panthers have a national star of their own with redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, who took college football by storm. He threw for an outstanding 4,319 yards and 42 touchdown passes, paving the way for him to be named one of four Heisman Trophy Finalists.
However, like Walker, Pickett has opted out of playing in the Peach Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft. That leaves redshirt junior Nick Patti as the starting Pitt quarterback with questions of who he really is. He made just one start in 2019 versus Delaware and besides that has not sniffed much of the field as a reserve.
Patti, though, does have a star weapon at his disposal in sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison. This year's Biletnikoff Trophy Winner for the nation’s top receiver, he and Pickett were a more-than-friendly connection totaling 1,479 yards and 17 touchdowns. Addison oozes with explosiveness that will have to be accounted for on all downs.
“You don’t win the Biletnikoff without being an outstanding player,” defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton said. “And he's a guy we need to know where he is and where he's at because they will put him everywhere. They will put him in the backfield and they will put him out wide and everything in-between.”
Defensively, Pitt does most of its work in the trenches in both stopping the run and getting pressure on the quarterback. The Panthers rank sixth in the country allowing 91.6 rushing yards per game and second in the country with 3.92 sacks per game.
Perhaps the impressive part is they get it done as a collective effort. Unlike teams MSU has faced like Michigan, Purdue and Ohio State, there are no superstars on the defensive line. Instead, the Panthers get production from all sorts of players. Redshirt junior defensive lineman Habakkuk Baldonado leads the team with nine sacks, followed by redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Calijah Kancey with seven. Four other players on the Pittsburgh defense have at least four sacks.
Michigan State, for instance, has just three players with at least four sacks.
"One of the things that I see is that their interior guys really show a lot of twitch in the pass game and give you fits," Johnson said. "They really give you fits. And then with the movements and things coach Narduzzi does, it really creates issues."
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Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. and will be broadcasted on ESPN.
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