We’ve heard MSU players and coaches repeat the phrase week after week through Michigan State’s unlikely season. We’ve seen the hand motions and the hashtag on MSU’s social media accounts. It’s become synonymous with Mel Tucker and Michigan State football.
The team adopted “Keep Choppin’” as its defining rallying cry throughout the 2021 season. In Mel Tucker’s eyes, Keep Choppin’ is a way of life for his players and coaches. The simple metaphor used religiously by the MSU football team means one simple thing: Never stop fighting no matter the situation, on and off the field.
Tucker has preached this football sermon nonstop since Michigan State’s win over Miami all the way back in the third week of the season. It is the type of mindset that he wanted to instill in the team and it became the legacy of this MSU football team, which was only the sixth Spartan squad in history to reach 11 wins in a season.
And on Thursday night, Tucker’s message came alive one last time during Michigan State’s come-from-behind victory over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl.
“Our guys played extremely hard like they always do,” Tucker said following the New Year’s Six win. “They never flinched. They continued to just keep chopping wood and keep believing and we were able to hit our stride there in the second half and play complementary football.”
MSU was staring at an 11-point deficit in the face to a Pitt team being led by third-string quarterback Davis Beville entering the fourth quarter. At that point, redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne was 15-31 with two turnovers leading directly to two of Pitt’s three touchdowns.
Michigan State needed a spark and it turned again to Thorne to guide them forward despite the pronounced struggles. Thorne answered the call with one of the best quarters of his young career, going 14-19 for 144 yards and two touchdown passes.
“Going into the fourth quarter, I think we were down 11,” Thorne said. “And the whole game, my teammates just kept telling me to stay up and really just keep chopping.”
The chopping began at the start of the fourth quarter after Michigan State forced a punt and took over just inside their half of midfield, looking to cut into the deficit. Thorne turned to the short and intermediate routes to slowly carve into the defense. The drive was capped off with a perfectly placed throw to senior tight end Connor Heyward, who was running a fade. Heyward elevated above the defense and caught the touchdown while absorbing a hit from two defenders.
MSU trailed 21-16 after scoring and failing the two-point conversion. Next up, it was the defense’s turn to get yet another stop to give the offense a chance. The defense, which has been the recipient of most of the hate from the Michigan State fanbase, forced its sixth three-and-out of the game and got the offense the ball back with a chance to take the lead.
It was the perfect example of the complementary football that Tucker constantly strives for.
Thorne and his arsenal of pass-catching weapons took the field with 5:37 left needing a touchdown to win. Thorne went back to the quick-hitting comeback and slant routes to get the offense chugging with a full head of steam into Pitt territory and eventually the red zone. Thorne turned to his favorite target and childhood friend redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed for a jump ball in the endzone, and Reed elevated above the corner and caught the touchdown to give MSU the lead.
“Going into the fourth quarter, like I said before, it was just 'play one play at a time, try to put a good drive together,'” Thorne said. “Our guys made great plays, great catches all around.”
MSU never stopped fighting late into the game and was able to power past a tired Pitt defense that was not able to stand stout. The resilience and stamina that Tucker demands from every player proved to be more than fruitful late in the Peach Bowl.
“We were able to take it deep down into the fourth quarter and we got stronger and stronger as the game went,” Tucker said. “And we went down into the deep water and were able to find a way to get it done.”
Michigan State was able to drag the tired Pitt defense down into the murky waters of MSU’s metaphorical “deep end.” The deep end is Tucker’s term for the Spartans’ comfort zone on the field when all the wheels are turning and the team seems unstoppable in every facet of the game.
The mottos the team has been repeating throughout the season may have seen like cheesy gimmicks by a team that was overachieving, but each came to fruition for the Spartans Thursday night to guide them to victory.
The words and phrases of the Michigan State football team kept them fighting until the very last whistle when everyone else in the Mercedes-Benz stadium counted them out and penciled in an improbable Pitt victory with its third-string quarterback under center.
However, Michigan State fought to not let that become a reality, just like the team fought all season to defy the expectations that were laid out for them in the preseason.
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The win was the perfect showcase of why this Spartan team will forever be remembered as one of the school’s greatest teams ever. Michigan State stuck to its dedicated, by any means necessary identity just like it did all season and was able to become the sixth Spartan team to reach 11 wins in school history.
We won’t know if this season will be the springboard to a long and successful run under Tucker or if it was an anomaly caused by a perfect storm, but one thing is for certain, Spartan fans will never forget the 2021 Michigan State football season.
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