The Michigan State Spartans (10-2) have earned a slot in the New Year’s six set of bowls, as MSU will take on the Pittsburgh Panthers (11-2) at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 30 at 7 p.m.
Following the announcement, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker, Pittsburgh head coach (and former Michigan State defensive coordinator) Pat Narduzzi and several representatives from the Peach Bowl joined a Zoom call with media to discuss the upcoming matchup.
Gary Stokan, CEO and president of the Peach Bowl, started things off by welcoming the programs, coaches and players.
“Everything we do for our bowl game is a reward for the players,” Stokan said. “They’re the ones that play the game. They’re the ones that spend the time conditioning, spending the time in the summer and the winter, and so we use a theme of live, laugh and learn.”
After Stokan spoke, Narduzzi and Tucker made their opening comments.
“It’s an honor, certainly, to be on this (Peach Bowl) call,” Narduzzi started. “It’s an outstanding thing for Pitt to be here today. Obviously we’re coming in after a great win last night against Wake Forest in the ACC Championship game, so it’s kind of been a whirlwind the last 24 hours, but we couldn’t be happier to be in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and play such a great opponent as Michigan State University, who I’ve got great knowledge of, that university after spending eight seasons there and winning a few ballgames with Coach (Mark) Dantonio, who I’ve got an unbelievable relationship with.”
In addition to mentioning his experience at Michigan State and his relationship with Dantonio, Narduzzi was highly-complimentary of Tucker and the current state of MSU football.
“Mel Tucker, outstanding football coach at every level, from the NFL to Michigan State, Colorado and Georgia and everywhere else he’s been,” Narduzzi said. “Just a super coach. This is going to be a heck of a ballgame. I think you guys picked two great teams, two top-15 teams, and obviously Michigan State is at No. 10 in the country and maybe should be even higher than that. It’s an honor for our team to be able to go play them down in Atlanta, and we can’t wait to get there.”
Tucker was also very excited about being picked for the Peach Bowl, and knows it is a big opportunity for Michigan State against Pittsburgh. He also expects MSU fans to travel to Atlanta and support the Spartans.
“We’re very excited for our players, our program, all of our fans to be selected to this New Year’s Six bowl game,” Tucker said. “It’s a very rewarding accomplishment for a 10-win regular season. Our first-ever appearance in the Peach Bowl, Michigan State, and the third ever appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl and the first since 2015. Our fans will be very excited to be in a big-time bowl game, and they’ll show up strong in Atlanta.”
Both coaches had the utmost respect for each other, and Narduzzi later expanded on his thoughts about Tucker:
“I’ve admired Coach Tucker from afar,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve not been fortunate enough to work with each other, but just admired his work. I know he’s been a defensive coordinator and DBs coach throughout his career, and I know Mark Dantonio spoke very, very highly of him in the days that he worked with him. That’s my knowledge of Mel.”
The feeling was mutual as Tucker praised Narduzzi and the job he has done building up the Pittsburgh football program.
“I’ve just gotten to know Pat over the years, particularly with him being with Coach Dantonio, and just seeing him at some camps and things like that,” Tucker said. “I know that they visited us here down at Georgia when I was down in Georgia in the summer, and so I’ve heard nothing but great things about Pat as a coach and as a mentor, and then obviously met him several times over the years, had really good conversations. He’s a really good ball coach, really good pedigree. Did a really good job here defensively at Michigan State. They were very aggressive in coverage and pressures, and I really had a lot of respect for what he did here as a coordinator and obviously as a head coach he’s done a great job.”
While Narduzzi did say his experience at Michigan State and in Big Ten football is a slight advantage for his preparation, as for what it means for him to be playing against a program he helped lead to so much success in a New Year’s Six bowl, Narduzzi downplayed the sentimental value and emotions a bit.
“Obviously, we as coaches don’t get to play in the game,” Narduzzi said. “We’re excited to be in this game, but it’s a football game. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. We’ve got a great opponent. It doesn’t matter that I coached there for a few years. That will not play into any role at all. Coach Tucker has got a brand new roster there, and I don’t think there’s any guys on that roster I know or ever coached. A few guys on the staff, but besides that, there will be no emotions, it’s just another football game.”
Tucker has not had a chance to round up the players and meet as a team yet, but he understands what his team has accomplished so far to earn a bid to this game, and he is proud of his team. He later elaborated a little bit more on what the Peach Bowl means to him, the staff, the players and the fans.
“I haven’t talked to the squad yet, but it is an accomplishment to get to a New Year’s Six bowl, to the Peach Bowl,” Tucker said. “Winning 10 games is an accomplishment. I think it’s the ninth time in the history of the school that the program has won 10 games, and we have an opportunity to get to 11 (wins). So we’re really excited about that. It’s a great way to send out our seniors. Our fans have been great all season. It’s going to give our fans an opportunity to support us again in a great bowl game. Our fans travel well. We have an exciting football team, and it’s just a great way to wrap up the season.”
As for key players in the game, Narduzzi mentioned the “big challenge” that Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III is going to be for the Pittsburgh defense. Meanwhile, Tucker mentioned how Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett is a “great player” and that Michigan State’s struggling passing defense will need to “tighten up some areas.” Both coaches mentioned they haven’t been able to watch any tape on the opponent yet, but will surely get to that soon.
Speaking of players, Tucker was asked about if any players, such as Walker or others who may be considering entering the NFL Draft, were opting out of the game. As far as Tucker knows, all of the Spartans’ key players, if healthy, plan to play in the Peach Bowl.
“I haven’t heard from any of the guys that they’ve decided not to play,” Tucker said. “At this point I’m assuming everyone is going to play, but if something changes I will certainly make sure everyone knows that.”
Coach Tucker also sees the location of the Peach Bowl in Atlanta as a benefit, especially in terms of recruiting since Tucker and his staff target Georgia as a key state in the program’s pipeline for recruits. He mentioned a similar benefit with Florida recruits when the Spartans traveled down to Miami earlier this season and defeated the Hurricanes.
“It’s going to help us quite a bit,” Tucker about playing in Atlanta. “We recruit heavily in the state of Georgia, and all the way down to south Georgia. We’re going to be very visible, and it’s going to be great for our program, great exposure for recruiting. We saw that when we played down at Miami earlier this season. We had a very good showing, and there was a lot of excitement generated in south Florida about the Spartans and Spartan football. We got a very good response and made a lot of good connections because of that game. This will be very, very similar.”
As for what the Michigan State football team is up to this week, Tucker noted that the staff will be out on the road recruiting, while the players will be working on strength and conditioning with running and lifting sessions, as well as “scheme work,” “some X’s and O’s work” and “walk-throughs.”