Michigan State caps off its season as Peach Bowl champions


MSU quarterback Payton Thorne warms up in the snow before the Spartans take on Penn State on Nov. 27, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Aidan Champion, Football Beat Reporter

The Michigan State football team’s historic season ended in the most fitting way possible: The Spartans finding a way to win.

No. 10 MSU finished the night victorious in the 2021 Peach Bowl, overcoming No. 12 Pittsburgh 31-21 in dramatic fashion.

MSU made a strong statement right out of the gate with a beautiful kickoff by kicker Stephen Rusnak, which would start Pittsburgh on its own 2-yard line. 

The Spartans would use the special teams’ momentum and stop the Panthers in three plays, forcing Pittsburgh to punt. The defensive success allowed the offense to start its drive with solid field position on the Panthers’ 29-yard line.

On just the third play of the Spartan drive, quarterback Payton Thorne found his No. 1 receiver Jayden Reed with a 28-yard long ball that resulted in a touchdown to put MSU up less than two minutes into the contest.

Thorne finished the game with 354 passing yards and three touchdowns, while Reed had 80 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions.

MSU wide receiver Jayden Reed flexes after scoring a touchdown in the Spartans’ 38-17 win over No. 24 Miami on Sept. 18, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Despite their rough start on their first possession, the Panthers immediately responded with a scoring drive of their own. Just when the Spartans had a chance to bend but not break with Pittsburgh facing third-and-4, Panthers QB Nick Patti kept the ball and rushed for a 16-yard TD. Following the extra point, Pittsburgh would tie the game at 7 apiece.

The Spartans picked up right where they left off on their previous offensive drive, having marched down to the Pittsburgh 11-yard line. A holding penalty on third down would send MSU back 10 yards, ending its momentum. It wound up settling for the field goal by kicker Matt Coghlin, who made the 36-yard attempt to put the Spartans back on top.

On the Panthers’ next possession, Patti was replaced by third-string QB Davis Beville after breaking his collarbone. Beville played behind center for the rest of the game. 

Pittsburgh started the second quarter facing third down with 9 yards to go, but it would be MSU’s Brandon Wright who came up big with a sack on Beville for a loss of 9 yards, forcing the Panthers to punt.

The Spartan offense returned to the field looking to extend their lead on the Panthers early in the quarter. A 50-yard one-handed snag by MSU wide receiver Jalen Nailor would put the Spartan offense down at the Pittsburgh 4-yard line.

Nailor recorded 108 receiving yards on just six receptions for the night.

MSU wide receiver Jalen Nailor celebrates after scoring a late touchdown in the Spartans’ 38-17 win over No. 24 Miami on Sept. 18, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

A false start penalty set MSU back 5 yards, though, and in doing so, took the Spartans out of their rhythm as they ultimately settled for a field goal.

This attempt was missed, and it remained a 3-point lead. 

Each team’s defense held firm, but it would be Pittsburgh’s defense that made the ultimate second-quarter play, as the Panthers picked off Thorne to set up what would result in a TD drive to put them up 14-10 at the half.

MSU had elected to receive to start the second half, but what should have been a drive to regain momentum ended up being another turnover by Thorne. The QB was stripped, and Panther linebacker Cam Bright returned the ball for a Pittsburgh TD. The Panthers’ lead was extended to 11 points.

MSU quarterback Payton Thorne looks for an open teammate with Pittsburgh linebacker Phil Campbell staring him down during the 2021 Peach Bowl/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

The third quarter continued to be unkind to Thorne, as the QB ultimately completed just five passes out of 14 attempts in the quarter. 

MSU would be faced with fourth-and-3 on its own 42-yard line, once again looking defeated on offense yet again. But a fake punt play was called and successfully executed by Spartan tight end Connor Heyward, igniting the faith of the MSU faithful. 

It would prove to be of not much use in the long run, though, as the Spartans did end up punting the ball away.

Two drives later, the MSU defense came up big when defensive ends Drew Beesley and Brandon Wright sacked Beville on third-and-10 to force the fourth down.

MSU defensive end Brandon Wright attempts to drag down Pittsburgh quarterback Davis Beville in the 2021 Peach Bowl on Dec. 30, 2021/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Another big sack came in the final moments of the quarter with Jacub Panasiuk and Simeon Barrow bringing Beville down for a loss of 12 yards on second down.

Pittsburgh was then forced to punt to start the fourth and final quarter.

The conclusion to MSU’s season would end in epic fashion. 

The Spartans once again entered the red zone, but it looked as if they wouldn’t be able to finish the mission yet again. But on third-and-goal, Thorne connected with Heyward over the middle for a 15-yard TD reception. MSU would not convert on the 2-point conversion, but it had successfully come back to within just a single TD deficit.

MSU quarterback Payton Thorne celebrates after MSU’s narrow 30-27 win over Penn State on Nov. 30, 2021/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

From that point on, everything would go right for the Spartans.

MSU forced a three-and-out and would get the ball back for a chance to take the lead late in the fourth. Thorne was back to performing at the high level he’s been known to all season, finding his receivers for first down after first down all the way down the field.

It would be the heroic efforts of Reed that put the Spartans ahead, as the receiver received a 22-yard pass from Thorne for the TD. MSU converted on the 2-point conversion this time around, and the Spartans took a 24-21 lead.

Things didn’t look good for MSU when Pittsburgh got the ball back, though, as Beville and the Panthers offense marched into field goal territory.

It would end with a faulty pass from the third-string that was picked off by Spartan linebacker Cal Haladay who returned it to the house to solidify the MSU win.

MSU linebacker Cal Haladay makes a 78-yard interception and takes it for a touchdown in the waning seconds of the Spartans’ 31-21 Peach Bowl victory over No. 12 Pittsburgh on Dec. 30, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

MSU ended the night as Peach Bowl victors. Haladay won Defensive MVP for the game, while Reed won Offensive Player MVP.

The Spartans conclude the season with 11 wins for just the sixth time in program history.

“I feel like our team gave us everything that they had every game,” said MSU coach Mel Tucker. “And [they] emptied the bucket with extreme effort, played with toughness, was resilient, played to win, and that’s all you can ask.”