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Peach Bowl Recap: Michigan State comes back from double-digit deficit to defeat Pittsburgh, 31-21

The Spartans cap off a stellar 2021 season with a surprising 11-2 record and New Year’s Six bowl victory.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Pittsburgh v Michigan State Photo by Adam Hagy/Getty Images

The Michigan State Spartans capped of the 2021 season with a come-from-behind victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers in the New Year’s Six Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. MSU defeated Pitt by a final score of 31-21, and finishes the year with a record of 11-2. Pittsburgh finishes the campaign at 11-3.

After winning the coin toss, Michigan State elected to defer to the second half, and kicked off to begin the game, immediately pinning Pittsburgh at its own two-yard-line. The MSU defense quickly forced a three-and-out, and after a 16-yard punt return from Jayden Reed, the Spartans started with great field position at Pitt’s 29-yard-line.

Payton Thorne and Reed quickly took advantage of the field position, connecting on a beautiful 28-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the drive. Michigan State led 7-0 less than two minutes into the game.

It didn’t take Pittsburgh too long to respond, however. The Panthers put together a 12-play, 75 yard drive led by quarterback Nick Patti. On the first play of the drive, Patti found Jordan Addison for 13 yards. Pitt would then chip its way down the field before Patti ended the possession with a 16-yard touchdown run. The Panthers tied the game at 7-7, but Patti was hurt on the play, and missed the remainder of the game — his left arm was in a sling on the sideline.

The Spartans would answer with an 11-play, 57-yard scoring drive that ended in a field goal. On the first play of the drive, Thorne found Jalen Nailor for a 17-yard gain. Then, after an offsides penalty on Pittsburgh, Thorne connected with Maliq Carr for a 26-yard gain. MSU eventually got down to Pitt’s 11-yard-line, but a holding call on Spencer Brown sent the Spartans back 10 yards to Pitt’s 21-yard-line. Two plays later, Matt Coghlin knocked through a 36-yard field goal, and MSU regained the lead at 10-7.

With Davis Beville now in the game at quarterback for Pittsburgh, the Michigan State defense quickly forced a punt. The Spartans would move the ball down the field, but didn’t come away with any points. On the fourth play of the drive, Thorne hit Nailor for a 50-yard gain — an incredible one-handed catch by Nailor — which put MSU at Pitt’s four-yard-line. However, the Panthers were stout, and did not allow the Spartans to get into the end zone. A false start called on Matt Allen, and a six-yard loss on a rushing attempt by Thorne sent the Spartans back to Pitt’s 15-yard-line. Coghlin missed a 33-yard field goal wide right and the Panthers took over.

The teams then traded a few punts before Michigan State’s next promising drive. However, that promising drive would end in disaster for the Spartans. After a couple of runs from Jordon Simmons, and a 15-yard pass from Thorne to Tre Mosley, MSU quickly moved into Pittsburgh territory. Then, after a couple more runs from Simmons, Thorne threw an interception to Pittsburgh’s Brandon Hill.

The Panthers took advantage of the turnover, and put together a six-play, 87-yard scoring drive that took just over one minute of gameplay to complete. The big play on the possession was a 52-yard pass from Beville to Addison. A few plays later, Beville found Jared Wayne for a four-yard touchdown strike. Pittsburgh took it’s first lead of the game at 14-10, and that would be the score at halftime.

The Spartans received the second half kickoff, but it did not go well for MSU. Three plays into the drive, Thorne was hit and fumbled, which was caused by Pittsburgh’s John Morgan, and was scooped up and taken 26 yards into the end zone by Cam Bright. The Panthers took a commanding 21-10 lead at that point.

Michigan State would turn the ball over on downs on its next possession. The teams would then trade punts for the next several possessions. The Spartans would finally get on the scoreboard once again about halfway through the fourth quarter. A 13-play, 70-yard drive that included a key fourth-down conversion, was finished off when Thorne found Connor Heyward for a 15-yard touchdown pass. The two-point conversion attempt was no good, but the score was now Pittsburgh 21, Michigan State 16.

After the MSU defense forced a quick three-and-out, the Spartans took back over possession at its own 29-yard-line. This would be the opportunity the Spartans needed to take the lead back. Key catches by Reed, Nailor, Carr, Heyward and Keon Coleman helped move the Spartans down the field. Eventually, it was the connection of Thorne and Reed that once again found the end zone for MSU. Reed made an incredible play on the ball, despite the Pittsburgh defender interfering with him, and gave the Spartans a 22-21 lead. The two-point conversion attempt was good, with Thorne hitting Nailor, giving Michigan State the 24-21 lead.

Pittsburgh would have a chance to tie the game or take the lead. Beville led the Panthers down the field, eventually getting to Michigan State’s 26-yard-line. However, it was Spartan linebacker Cal Haladay who sealed the game for Michigan State, picking off Beville and returning it 78 yards for a touchdown. That moved the score to 31-21 in MSU’s favor, and that would be the final score after the Spartans outscored the Panthers 21-0 in the fourth quarter.

Thorne had some tough moments, but showed resiliency and poise, as he threw for three touchdowns and a career-high 354 yards, while completing 58 percent of his passes (29-for-50). He also set a Michigan State program record for touchdown passes (27). Nailor led MSU with six catches for 108 yards, while Reed had six catches for 80 yards and two touchdowns.

The Michigan State defense held Pittsburgh to just 274 total yards, and recorded five sacks.

At certain points, it didn’t look pretty, but the Spartans found a way to get it done — something the team has done many times this season. This was a team that was picked to finish in last place in the Big Ten East in the preseason. There were not many people out there who believed Michigan State would finish with an 11-2 record and a New Year’s Six bowl victory. It is just the sixth time in MSU program history that the Spartans have finished a season with 11 wins. This season should be looked at as a total success, and credit goes to Mel Tucker, his staff and the MSU players.