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Peach Bowl Game Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers versus Michigan State Spartans

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Michigan State looks to cap off its season with a New Year’s Six bowl victory against the ACC champion.

Penn State v Michigan State Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The No. 10-ranked Michigan State Spartans enter the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl game with a 10-2 overall record and will be the acting home team at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for Thursday’s matchup with the 11-2 Pittsburgh Panthers (ranked No. 12). Kickoff for the New Year’s Six bowl is set for 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.

Thursday’s contest marks the first matchup between Pittsburgh and Michigan State since 2007, and just the eighth the time the programs have met overall. While the two teams tied in 1960, the Panthers have never defeated the Spartans (MSU leads 6-0-1 all-time).

The big storyline of the Peach Bowl, of course, is that both teams have All-American players who have opted out of the game to prepare for the 2022 NFL Draft. For Pittsburgh, quarterback Kenny Pickett — a Heisman Trophy finalist and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner — will not be playing. Pittsburgh cornerback Damarri Mathis and wide receiver Taysir Mack have also opted out of the Peach Bowl. For Michigan State, Walter Camp Player of the Year and the Doak Walker Award winner, Kenneth Walker III, will not be playing.

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker also recently noted that tight end Tyler Hunt and linebacker Quavaris Crouch are doubtful for the game, while left tackle Jarrett Horst is questionable. Meanwhile, defensive back Michael Dowell, who is in the transfer portal, has elected not to play. However, wide receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are both expected to play.

Let’s jump into the preview:

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2021 Record — 10-2 (7-2 in Big Ten)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 430.93 total yards, 245.33 passing yards, 185.6 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 455.9 total yards allowed, 337.67 passing yards allowed, 118.3 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 383 (31.92 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 308 (25.67 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 35th

Pittsburgh:
2021 Record — 11-2 (7-1 in ACC)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 502.93 total yards, 350.23 passing yards, 152.7 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 348.58 yards allowed, 257.38 passing yards allowed, 91.2 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 559 (43.0 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 300 (23.8 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 10th


Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Michigan State leads 6-0-1
Current streak: Michigan State has won two in a row (since the teams tied in 1960)
Last Michigan State Win: Sept. 15, 2007 (17-13)
Last Pittsburgh Win: N/A
Michigan State all-time record: 720-472-44 (.600)
Pittsburgh all-time record: 749-546-42 (.576)


Uniform Watch:

Michigan State will wear green tops with white lettering and numbering, white pants with a green patterned stripe, and green helmets with a white Spartan head logo and white stripe down the middle. The jerseys include a Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl logo patch, while the helmets include an “OXFORD STRONG” sticker on the back.

A closer look at this week’s threads:

Pittsburgh’s uniforms:

The Panthers will wear gold helmets with blue accents, white jerseys with blue numbers outlined in gold, and gold pants with a blue and white stripe.


Previous Game Results

Michigan State 30, Penn State 27

The Spartans last played on a snowy day on Nov. 27 in the regular season finale against Penn State, and capped off the surprising 2021 campaign with a 10th victory after defeating the Nittany Lions.

Kenneth Walker III, in his final game for Michigan State, had a big day with 30 carries for 138 yards and a touchdown. He got the scoring going for the Spartans early, as MSU scored on its first possession thanks to a two-yard touchdown run by Walker. Earlier in the drive, quarterback Payton Thorne found tight end Maliq Carr for a 40-yard gain.

After a Penn State punt on the Nittany Lions’ first possession, the Spartans would find the end zone once again. A few plays after Walker started the drive with a 35-yard run, Thorne found Tre Mosley for a nine-yard touchdown pass, and MSU jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead.

Penn State would quickly respond with a 27-yard touchdown strike from Sean Clifford to Jahan Dotson to cut Michigan State’s lead to seven points. Later in the second quarter, Clifford and Dotson hooked up again, this time from 30 yards out, to tie the game at 14. Matt Coghlin later added a field goal to give the Spartans a 17-14 advantage at halftime.

In the second half, a pick-six by Penn State’s Daequan Hardy on a pass from Thorne gave the Lions a 20-17 lead (extra point was missed). Thorne and the Spartans responded with a 15-play, 75 yard drive, which ended with a one-yard touchdown run by Thorne. MSU took the lead back at 23-20 (also missing the extra point).

In the fourth quarter, with 5:15 left to play in the game, Michigan State iced the game. On a fourth-down-and-15 play, Thorne found Jayden Reed on an incredible throw and catch to give Michigan State a 30-20 lead.

Penn State added a touchdown with 0:53 to go, but it was too little, too late, and MSU won the game by a final score of 30-27.

Pittsburgh 45, Wake Forest 31 (ACC Championship Game)

Pittsburgh took home its first ever ACC championship with a two-touchdown victory over Wake Forest. In quarterback Kenny Pickett’s last game as a Panther, he threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns, while adding a rushing score.

The game was actually a back-and-forth battle before Pittsburgh pulled away. Pickett got things rolling with a 58-yard rushing touchdown, which included the infamous “fake slide” (which has since caused the NCAA to change it rules). The play gave Pitt a 7-0 advantage, but Wake Forest quickly tied the game on its first possession, as Sam Hartman found A.T. Perry for a five-yard touchdown.

Pitt answered right back, with a quick, four-play scoring drive that ended with Pickett finding Rodney Hammond for a 22-yard score. However, the Demon Deacons then put together a long scoring drive, which was capped off by an 11-yard run by Hartman for a touchdown. The game was then tied at 14.

Pittsburgh’s Sam Scarton would miss a field goal attempt on the next possession, and Wake Forest took advantage. Hartman would lead another scoring drive, finding Taylor Morin for a touchdown, which gave the Demon Deacons a 21-14 lead.

All of that happened in the first quarter. Wake Forest would not score another point. In the second quarter, Pickett found Jared Wayne for a four-yard touchdown and Scarton added a field goal late in the quarter to give Pitt the 24-21 advantage at halftime.

Pittsburgh’s Israel Abanikanda scored the only points of the third quarter on a 12-yard touchdown run. Abanikanda scored again in the fourth quarter, and the Panthers added a pick-six in the final quarter as well. Pitt won by a final score of 45-21.


Key Matchups

Jordan Addison versus Ronald Williams/Chester Kimbrough: While Pittsburgh will be without Kenny Pickett in this game, the Panthers will still have the offense’s biggest play-maker in Addison — a sophomore wide receiver and Biletnikoff Award winner. Addison tormented defenses all season long with 93 catches for 1,479 yards and 17 touchdowns through the air. Michigan State, meanwhile, ranks last in the country in passing yards allowed (337.67 yard per game). While MSU’s yards allowed per pass attempt numbers (7.29) look a little bit better, the Spartan defense has been torched through the air all season long. Whether it is Ronald Williams, Chester Kimbrough, Marqui Lowery or somebody else covering Addison, MSU has to make limiting his effective the top priority.

Pittsburgh pass rush versus Michigan State offensive line: Pittsburgh enters the Peach Bowl with the second-most sacks in the country (51) and also ranks second in the country in sacks per game (3.92). The Panthers have eight guys with at least four sacks on the season, led by Habakkuk Baldonado’s nine. Michigan State, on the other hand, is one of the better teams in the nation in terms of sacks given up, allowing just 18 total sacks in 12 games (19th fewest in FBS), and 1.5 sacks per game (23rd in FBS). This will be one of the more intriguing matchups, and if Michigan State can keep quarterback Payton Thorne clean, the Spartans will set themselves up for a victory.

Jordon Simmons/Elijah Collins/Harold Joiner versus the Pittsburgh run defense: More than likely, Payton Thorne, Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are going to move the ball on the Panther passing defense that allows 257.4 yards per game (105th in FBS). However, Pittsburgh has an incredibly stout rushing defense, ranking sixth in the country at 91.8 yards per game. Pitt also allows just 2.74 yards per carry. With Kenneth Walker III out, MSU will likely rely on a committee of running backs, including Jordon Simmons, Elijah Collins, Harold Joiner III and possibly even Donovan Eaglin. My guess is that Simmons and Collins will lead the charge, but whoever is getting the carries has to gain positive yards and keep the Pitt defense honest. Michigan State can’t be one-dimensional in this game, even if yards are hard to come by on the ground. While we talked about the offensive line’s performance in the passing game, the unit also needs to be solid and open holes on the ground.


Game Info

Time: 7 p.m. Eastern Time
TV Channel: ESPN
Location: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Georgia
Weather expectations: Game played in dome with retractable roof — Rain/thunderstorms expected outside, temperatures around 67 degrees at kickoff
Line: Michigan State -2.5


Overview:

This is honestly a fun matchup. Both teams are missing their star players, so who is going to step up and help their team win? Michigan State has a strong rushing attack (at least when Walker played) and Pittsburgh has a strong rushing defense. Pittsburgh has a strong passing attack (at least when Pickett played) and Michigan State has struggled to defense the pass. MSU has a fairly strong passing game and Pittsburgh has also struggled to defend the pass. The Panthers can get after the quarterback, while the Spartans do a good job of protecting Thorne. Both teams have strong red zone defenses. You get it — a lot of interesting things to watch out for in this game.

An 11-win season and a New Year’s Six bowl win is at stake for the Spartans. There were very few people out there who thought either of those milestones would be in place for Michigan State back in August. Win or lose in the Peach Bowl, this has been a surprising and special season for MSU. That is a credit to Mel Tucker and his staff.

For Pittsburgh, the Panthers won their first ACC championship and not many people expected Pitt to be in this position either. Of course, for Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi, there is also the fun storyline that he was the longtime defensive coordinator for Michigan State under Mark Dantonio. Pittsburgh will also be without offensive coordinator Mark Whipple for this game after he left to take the same role at Nebraska.

I think this will be a fairly close game, but I also think Michigan State is the better team and has faced tougher competition.

For additional thoughts and analysis on Pittsburgh, read our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece.

Poll

Which school wins the Peach Bowl?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    Pittsburgh
    (42 votes)
  • 76%
    Michigan State
    (133 votes)
175 votes total Vote Now

Mel Tucker’s Joint Press Conference Remarks

Pat Narduzzi’s Joint Press Conference Remarks