The No. 10 Michigan State Spartans rallied to score 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter against the No. 12 Pittsburgh Panthers on Thursday night to win the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and won by a final score of 31-21. Following the game and trophy presentation ceremony, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker and a number of players spoke to media via Zoom.
“We’re forever grateful for the opportunity,” Tucker said. “Our guys played extremely hard, like they always do. They never flinched. They continued to just keep chopping wood and keep believing. And we were able to hit our stride there in the second half and play complementary football — offense, defense, special teams working together. And we were able to take it deep down into the fourth quarter and we got stronger and stronger as the game went. And we went down into the deep water and were able to find a way to get it done.”
Tucker praised the team, seniors and the fans as well. He believes getting an 11th win on the season in a New Year’s Six Bowl was a significant achievement for the team and program. It was just the sixth time in program history that Michigan State has achieved 11 wins in a single season.
Tucker thanked the fans for coming down en masse and expects a lot of partying tonight among Spartan nation.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) December 31, 2021
Coach Tucker was also asked about quarterback Payton Thorne’s struggles in the game, who completed just five of his 14 passes in the third quarter, but later bounced back to lead the Spartans to victory. Tucker praised Thorne’s resilience despite the struggles. He credited Thorne as having maturity and resilience.
“He showed tremendous poise,” Tucker said of Thorne. “He showed a level of maturity. We talked throughout the entire game, and we just talked about what do we need to do to get better; what do we need to do to get on track? We kept communicating. And he said that he was missing some throws and he wasn’t accurate. And I asked him why. I said, ‘Why is that?’ And he told me it was his footwork and that he was really just not delivering the ball the way he normally does. I told him, ‘Well, get your feet right. Fix your footwork and cut it loose. Just start slinging it.’ And he said ‘OK.’ And he went out and he did that.”
Thorne ended up throwing for three touchdowns and a career-high 354 yards. He also set a Michigan State program record for single-season touchdown passes with 27 (previously 25).
Pittsburgh head coach and former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was also asked in his own postgame press conference about both Thorne and Jayden Reed. He offered high praise for the duo.
“They made plays” Narduzzi admitted. “They converted I think 50 percent of third downs, which usually is not us. We’ll go back and look at the coverage. Maybe an exhausted secondary, I don’t know. We’ll look at it. But we didn’t make enough plays back there. Not having Damarri Mathis is a factor. Starting corner, best corner. That was a factor. Some other young guys were out there. We’ll look at it. You look at whatever we held them to, 24 points. It was a solid day, but not good enough to win against a good team.”
Tucker credited the team as a whole, as well as Thorne. Tucker noted that Thorne has “got good players around him, a good offensive line, receivers, backs. And the defense stood up for us there and got stops. We kept getting them the ball back. We were solid on special teams. We were able to play field-position football. And we were able to get it done.”
However, Tucker also praised the staff’s efforts for the victory last night as well. He believes that the coaching staff, especially the defensive staff, came with an excellent game plan in place and worked hard ensuring it was well planned. Tucker praised the dedication and hard work all bowl season long by defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton and the rest of the staff.
“I’ll tell you what, the preparation leading up to this game was outstanding,” Tucker said. “Scottie (Hazelton) and the entire defensive staff put together a great plan. Never wasted a minute in preparation. And our guys were fresh and they were ready to go and they understood what we needed to do. And so it was all about execution. Guys played extremely hard. They believe in what we’re doing.
“We had rush and coverage working together,” Tucker continued. “So it was just a relentless effort for the defense. And we were able to get some three-and-outs. And we were able to affect the quarterback and get the ball back to our offense, make some big plays. And that’s what defenses do.”
The failures of the defense on long third down conversions and poor secondary play was not lost on Michigan State’s head coach, however. Tucker fully embraced the poor performance in some of the key moments this past season in his answer regarding preparation for the Peach Bowl.
“You know, the past is not necessarily predictive of the future unless you don’t change the behavior,” Tucker said. “And we played better. We executed better, played with better fundamentals. We got better from the end of the Penn State game until tonight. And so it showed on the field. And because of that we got better results.”
Much like Michigan State’s last successful head coach, Mark Dantonio, Tucker has a history in his career of coaching the secondary on defense. He was also asked to elaborate on the importance to him — given his history with the defensive backs— on the team’s five games this season that saw a game-clinching or key interception late in contests this season.
“It’s something to build upon” Tucker said. “It means that our guys, our coaches and our players believe in what we’re doing. And that when we execute, when we have our rush and our coverage working together, and we play our techniques, we play with great technique and fundamentals, everyone does their job, that we can be efficient in pass defense and we can be stout in the run game. And when we have success, we need to continue to understand why we have success and build on those things...The effort was there tonight and there was an element of competitive greatness and that’s being at your best when your best is needed. And that’s what we’ve seen this season...We do have pride in our defense. We’re not where we need to be. But we’re going to get there.”
The seniors played an important role in the team’s performance. Coach Tucker was asked next about his appreciation of the team given his praise all season long of the closeness of the roster and pleasure of coaching them. He particularly singled out the seniors, given the opportunity.
“First, I told them before the game that we have a tremendous amount of gratitude for this group, our coaching staff,” Tucker said of the team as a whole. “And we appreciate them and everything that they’ve done this season, all the hard work that they put in. And after the game, again, just proud of their performance.
“Really happy for our seniors that have given us so much, given this university so much. And I told them that this performance was very indicative of how we played all season and our culture.
“We’re relentless. We don’t flinch. We believe in the process. We keep chopping. We’re in great condition. We know that we can go deep into the fourth quarter and wear teams down, take them to the deep water. And that’s where we want to be. And we were able to get them to that point and were able to finish.”
Tucker was insistent, when asked about the team’s effort on the season, that the squad gave everything it had in the 11-2 season. That effort is a testament to where the program looks to build toward moving forward in his mind.
“I felt like our team gave us everything that they had every game, and emptied the bucket with extreme effort, played with toughness, was resilient, played to win,” Tucker insisted. “And that’s all you can ask. And when the fourth quarter starts, most teams put up a ‘four (fingers).’ We put up a ‘one (finger).’ And that one basically signifies one minute after the game, what will we be able to say to each other — coaches, players? Will we be able to say — win, lose, or draw — that we gave everything that we had on the field for each other?
“I felt like this football team just really laid it on the line and gave us everything that they had. And so we really have laid the foundation for how we need to play football here...that’s what Michigan State football has always been about and that’s what we see on the field.”
However, when it comes to this program, Tucker insisted that “the best is ahead for us.”
“It’s going to be a 24-hour rule for me,” Tucker clarified, regarding celebrating the win. “We’re going to enjoy this victory and then we’re going to get back to work. Recruiting is extremely important. And the contact period is going to open up here pretty soon. We’re going to hit the ground running. And then we’re going to have great out-of-season conditioning program leading up to spring ball. And we’re going to train like crazy and work to improve our football team.
“Our goal is to win every game on our schedule” Tucker said, regarding the goals for next season after an 11-win season in 2021. “So there’s a lot of hard work that needs to be done between now and when we kick off again next season. But we’re going to remain focused and determined to get where we need to go. And we play in a tough conference. It’s very rugged. It’s very competitive. But we’re in it. We’re in it to win it. And, so, I do believe that our best is ahead.”
Michigan State fans also received some of the praise from head coach Mel Tucker as well. He was asked about the gratitude he has for fans who traveled from far and wide to attend Thursday’s game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium despite some of the obstacles many may have faced in attending.
“Well, our fans have been great all season,” Tucker praised. “Spartan nation is strong, has always been strong. Football is extremely important here at Michigan State. And we have a tremendous fan base across the country and throughout the world — 500,000 living alumni. And they traveled well all season...So I want to thank our fans for believing in us and supporting our program. And they will continue to do that. And our fans deserve a winning football team. Our fans deserve a championship football team...And that’s what we’re here to do.”
Michigan State will be back in action for another season on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022 against the Western Michigan Broncos in East Lansing. Time and network information is still quite a ways off, but for now that is officially a wrap on Michigan State football in 2021. From a projected 4.5-win season by Vegas this past summer to an 11-2 New Year’s Six bowl game win, it has been quite the joyous and happily surprising ride for Spartan fans.
Mel Tucker’s Full Remarks
Payton Thorne’s Full Remarks
“Going into the fourth quarter, I think we were down 11, and the whole game my teammates just kept telling me to stay up and really just keep chopping. That’s what we talk about. And we really say that on the sideline. And coaches, same thing. I even heard fans saying that from the sideline. And I was telling the guys on the radio that sometimes when you’re playing like I was playing, fans are going to start to boo you. And that’s warranted. I’m not saying that fans shouldn’t do that. But they didn’t. They really didn’t. And they kept saying ‘We believe in you,’ stuff like that, I heard that from the crowd. But going into the fourth quarter, like I said before, it was just play one play at a time, try to put a good drive together. And our guys made great plays, great catches all around. And the offensive line played well, picking up all the blitzes. ”
Jayden Reed’s Full Remarks
Reed was asked at the start whether the plans to return to Michigan State not next season or enter the 2022 NFL Draft. He answered during the press conference he has not yet decided.
“It’s a blessing. Who would have thought I would be in this position today? I give all glory to God, my family that supported everything. And I trusted all my decisions I made coming up to this point. I want to thank the coaches, everybody, the whole program, support staff, the university for allowing me to go to school there and earn my degree. I’m just accomplishing all my dreams. And I can only thank God for that.”
He also said that he believes 50/50 balls are “100 percent” ball when they’re coming his way.
Now up is Peach Bowl offensive MVP Jayden Reed.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) December 31, 2021
First question was about the final drive. "I love 50/50 balls because I believe they're 100% balls when they're coming to me."
Cal Haladay’s Full Remarks
Haladay sealed the game with a 78-yard pick six late in the fourth quarter, but he was worried his coaching staff was going to scold him for not just taking a knee after the interception.
“In my mind I was just thinking I’m probably going to get yelled at a little bit because I’m supposed to go down in that situation. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity in my head. But it was really similar to Indiana. Now I just — there was nothing in front of me and I just had to keep going. And I was nervous someone was going to catch me from behind.”
Connor Heyward’s Full Remarks
“(The win) meant a lot. I had like 50 people here at least, 50, 60 people, friends and family, coaches from high school, coaches from little league. My friends I grew up with (in Georgia) and old teammates. It was just amazing to finish, and to do it with a group of guys in the locker room and all the coaches that have pushed us to extreme limits, but they know how to love on us as well. So just being able to get this dub means so much and more. Words don’t describe it. And to be at home (in Atlanta), that’s just icing on the cake.”