Michigan State is back in a New Year’s Six Bowl for the first time since the Spartans made the College Football Playoff back in 2015. MSU will face the champions of the ACC, the Pittsburgh Panthers. These teams have not faced off in a while (since 2007), so let’s get to know the Spartans’ Peach Bowl opponent.
School: University of Pittsburgh
Conference: ACC (Coastal Division)
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Head Coach: Pat Narduzzi (seventh season, 53-36)
Mascot: Roc the Panther
All Time Series: MSU leads 6-0-1 (last meeting was in 2007)
While it has been more than a decade since these two teams played, there are some familiar faces, namely Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi, who was a longtime defebsive coordinator for Mark Dantonio and Michigan State. It is hard to believe it has been seven years since he left East Lansing, but it is true. In the meantime Narduzzi has led Pitt to its first ever ACC Championship, and its first conference title since the Panthers were Big East co-champs in 2010.
This is also the first New Year’s Six Bowl appearance for Pitt and the Panthers’ first appearance in a major bowl game since the 2004 Fiesta Bowl. Their last bowl appearance was a win over Eastern Michigan in the 2019 Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.
Pittsburgh has been one of the highest scoring offenses in the country coming in at 43 points per game. Interestingly, Michigan State has already faced the top-two scoring offenses in Ohio State and Western Kentucky, and will now face Pitt to round out the top-three.
The Panthers are 73rd in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 152.69 yards per game. They are 83rd in yards per rush at 4.03 and their 25 rushing touchdowns rank 44th nationally.
Through the air, Pitt has moved the ball well. The Panthers are currently the fifth-ranked passing offense in the nation at just over 350 yards per game. They are 16th in yards per pass attempt (8.7) and eighth in quarterback rating. Their 43 passing touchdowns are third in the country behind WKU and Alabama.
Defensively, Pitt checks in at 40th in scoring defense, allowing 23.1 points per game.
As you might expect from a Narduzzi defense, the Panthers are very tough against the run, allowing just 91.77 yards per game, sixth-best in the country. They are fourth-best in yards per rush, allowing just 2.74 yards per carry. However, they have allowed 15 rushing touchdowns.
Through the air, things are a different story. Pitt is 105th in total pass defense, allowing 257.4 yards per game. The Panthers are better in yards per attempt, where they are 61st nationally, allowing 7.3 yards per attempt, tied with MSU. They have given up 23 touchdowns, but do have 15 interceptions, which ties them for 10th-most in the country.
Players to Watch
Well this is where things get interesting. Because Pittsburgh’s best player on offense was its quarterback and Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett, who threw for over 4,300 yards and 42 touchdowns, and ran for another 241 yards and five scores. Pickett will not be playing in the Peach Bowl, which means the job of running the offense falls to redshirt junior quarterback Nick Patti.
Patti appeared in eight games and was 12-for-14 for 140 yards. He had one carry for nine yards for a touchdown as well. This will be by far his biggest game at Pitt, having thrown fewer than 50 career passes coming into this season.
Oh, did we mention he will also have a new offensive coordinator for this game? Mark Whipple left after the ACC Championship game to take the same position at Nebraska. Tight ends coach Tim Salem will take over play-calling duties for the game, his first time doing so since he was the offensive coordinator at Central Florida in 2004.
Pittsburgh used three running backs throughout the year, with Israel Abanikanda leading the way with 635 yards and seven touchdowns. Junior Vincent Davis led the team with 130 carries, and was second with 550 yards. Freshman Rodney Hamilton Jr. also had 98 carries for 484 yards and five scores.
Abanikanda and Davis also each had over 20 catches and more than 100 receiving yards on the year, so they are certainly threats to catch the ball out of the backfield. And Abanikanda also had himself a kickoff return touchdown and averaged better than 36 yards per return on those as well.
Jordan Addison was the Panthers’ best pass-catcher this year, hauling in 93 catches for 1,479 yards and 17 touchdowns en route to winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver and being a first team All-American. Addison also averaged nearly 17 yards per punt return.
Junior Jared Wade wasn’t bad either, grabbing 46 receptions for 654 yards and five touchdowns.
Moving to defense it is a pair of defensive linemen that lead the way for Pitt. Habakkuk Baldonado had nine sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Calijah Kancey was first team All-ACC thanks to his 13 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
Linebacker SirVocea Dennis led the team in total tackles with 81, and was third with 9.5 tackles for loss, and he also added four sacks while being named second team All-ACC. He also had one interception that he took back 50 yards to the house.
Safety Brandon Hill was also second team All-ACC and was second on the team with 75 tackles to go with and interception, a fumble recovery, a forced fumble and six pass break-ups.
On special teams, place kicker Sam Scarton was 17-for-21 on field goals and 66-for-69 on extra points.
Punter Kirk Christodoulou averaged 41.11 yards per punt as a senior, his lowest average of his four-year career.
So that is the scoop on Pat Narduzzi’s Pittsburgh Panthers. They have been a great offensive team throughout the year, but how much of that will continue without their offensive coordinator and starting quarterback remains to be seen. But when you have Jordan Addison, he can make a lot of guys look good. Stopping him will be priority one, two and three for the MSU defense.
Meanwhile I would expect the Michigan State offense to attack the Pitt secondary just like Pitt will attack the Spartans’ defensive backs. Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor could be set up for big games, especially with Kenneth Walker III missing the bowl and Pitt’s stout run defense.
This should be a fun matchup, and let’s all remember that six months ago, Michigan State fans never expected to be in a New Year’s Six bowl game. It’s been a fun year and we still have one game left to enjoy.