Previewing MSU’s Peach Bowl showdown with No. 13 Pittsburgh


MSU head coach Mel Tucker supervises practice during the second week of 2021 fall camp/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Liam Jackson, News Editor

ATLANTA – Michigan State is getting set to take on the No. 13 Pittsburgh Panthers in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 30 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Spartans are over a month removed from their 30-27 regular-season finale win over Penn State on Nov. 27.

Mel Tucker’s first bowl game as the head coach at Michigan State, and ever as a head man, is full of storylines.

MSU head coach Mel Tucker oversees practice on Dec. 26 in preparation for the 2021 Peach Bowl against No. 13 Pittsburgh/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

For the Spartans, a win over Pittsburgh would mark only the sixth time in program history that an MSU team will have won 11 games in a single season. The Peach Bowl is the 30th bowl game that Michigan State has competed in and the third New Year’s Six bowl game.

On the other side, Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi will have his first opportunity to play against his former team. Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator at Michigan State from 2007 to 2014 and won the Broyles Award for the nation’s top overall assistant coach in 2013.

Neither team has ever appeared in the Peach Bowl.

Perhaps the most noteworthy information of all will be the absence of Spartan running back Kenneth Walker III and Panther quarterback Kenny Pickett. Both players received national recognition all season long for their excellence on the field.

Walker was awarded the Walter Camp National Player of the Year Award, the Doak Walker Award, the Big Ten Running Back of the Year and named a unanimous first-team All-American. Walker was the most reliable player on the Spartan’s offense; he finished second in the country in rushing with 1,636 yards and led the country in yards after contact with 1,168.

He was also eighth in the country with 18 rushing touchdowns.

MSU running back Kenneth Walker darts free in the Spartans’ 38-21 win over Northwestern on Sept. 3/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Pickett was the signal-caller for the third-highest scoring offense in the country (43 points per game). He was invited to New York as a Heisman finalist and finished third in the voting. Pickett was also the first Panther quarterback to be named a first-team All-American since Dan Marino in 1981.

On the season, he threw for 4,319 yards, 42 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. The 42 touchdown passes were the third-highest mark in the country.

Pittsburgh is 11-2 on the season and defeated Wake Forest in the ACC championship 45-21 on Dec. 4 to claim their first-ever ACC title and first conference championship since they won the Big East in 2010. The Panthers have never won a New Year’s Six bowl game and have lost three out of their past four bowl games under Narduzzi.

The Panthers’ high-powered offense will have a new quarterback in junior Nick Patti. Patti attempted only 14 passes all season in five games, but completed 12 of them for 140 yards. He has started in one game (against Delaware in 2019) and is a career 40-for-62 with 458 yards, three passing touchdowns (one rushing) and one interception in 11 games dating back to 2019.

MSU quarterback Payton Thorne rolls out to the right and looks for an open receiver during the Spartans’ 37-33 win over No. 6 Michigan on Oct. 30, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Patti will, however, have some help from sophomore wideout Jordan Addison.

Addison won the 2021 Biletnikoff award which is given to the nation’s top receiver. He was a problem for opposing secondaries all season long as he led the country with 17 touchdown receptions. Addison also racked up 1,479 receiving yards on 93 receptions, including seven games with at least 120 receiving yards.

His 1,479 receiving yards was the third-best mark in the country and the best mark among all Power Five teams.

The Panthers will be operating without offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, who was recently hired as Nebraska’s offensive coordinator. Tim Salem, the tight ends coach for Pittsburgh, will serve as the interim offensive coordinator. He is also the older brother of former MSU offensive coordinator Brad Salem.

Salem has experience calling plays; he was Eastern Michigan’s offensive coordinator in 2003 and UCF’s offensive coordinator from 2004-08.

Pittsburgh’s defense is aggressive and stout on the biggest plays of a game. They are seventh in the country in opponent third-down conversion percentage and first in the country in opponent fourth-down conversion rate. They also average 3.92 sacks per game (51 overall), which is good for second in the country behind Oklahoma State.

Michigan State’s offensive identity this season was to establish the run with Walker and then create favorable matchups on the outside for receivers like Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor to get free. Without Walker, backs like Harold Joiner, Elijah Collins and Jordan Simmons will have to pick up some of the slack.

MSU running back Jordan Simmons runs the ball vs. Rutgers on Oct. 24, 2020/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Wide receiver Jalen Nailor, who missed the final four games of the season, will be suiting up after sustaining a hand injury against No. 6 Michigan. Other injured and recently inactive players, such as starting defensive tackle Simeon Barrow and left tackle Jarrett Horst, may also be healthy enough to suit up.

Quarterback Payton Thorne has had a historical season himself for the Spartans. The All-Big Ten honorable mention’s 24 touchdown passes places him just one behind Kirk Cousins for the most in program history in a single season. Without Walker, Thorne may have to make some tougher throws in tougher spots if MSU wants to have a chance in this one. He is also only 114 passing yards away from breaking the 3,000-yard mark.

While both teams will be playing shorthanded on offense, this game will come down to depth and who will step up on either side. The Spartans are in a more favorable position by losing a running back that can be replaced in some way by a committee. Pitt, on the other hand, will have a brand new quarterback and offensive coordinator that the receivers will have to adjust to.

Panther senior wide receiver Taysir Mack, who had 27 catches for 461 yards and three scores in eight games this season, has also opted out in preparation for the 2022 NFL draft. He hasn’t played since Oct. 30 against Miami (FL) due to an injury.