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Michigan State Football: Takeaways from the Peach Bowl win against Pittsburgh

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The Michigan State Spartans finish the 2021 season at 11-2 after beating the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Peach Bowl.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Michigan State Spartans return to East Lansing from Atlanta as Peach Bowl champions. In Mel Tucker’s second season, and first full-length season, the Spartans have reached 11 wins — which is just the sixth time in program history that MSU has accomplished that feat. It’s been an incredible season for Michigan State, capped off with a New Years Six bowl win over the Pittsburgh Panthers. A game-sealing pick-six by Cal Haladay gave the Spartans the 31-21 victory over Pitt.

The Peach Bowl wasn’t the prettiest of games. Quarterback Payton Thorne looked a bit off throughout the game, missing some easy throws and failing to connect on some of the deep shots he’s been so good at all season. The running game without Kenneth Walker III was stagnant at times, and is going to need an overhaul in the offseason (Wisconsin transfer running back Jalen Beger enters the program in 2022) if the Spartans want to continue their success into 2022.

But a win is a win. Let’s dive into some takeaways from the victory.

The Spartans clearly missed Kenneth Walker III — perhaps more than initially thought

One of the biggest takeaways from watching the game was that the Spartans really, truly missed running back Kenneth Walker III. His immediate playmaking ability and home run threat made the Spartans a really dangerous offense this season. This isn’t really surprising or a big revelation, given that Walker is a generational talent, but the Spartans simply couldn’t move the ball on the ground against a tough Pittsburgh defense. MSU fans got their first glimpse at what next season will look like without him on Thursday night. Running back Jordon Simmons stepped in as the starter and had most of the Spartans’ carries, with some Harold Joiner and Elijah Collins sightings as well.

The Spartans were able to pick up some nice runs later in the game, but not before a very slow start for the running game. MSU finished with 56 yards on 36 carries, which is, well, not great (1.6 yards per carry). If the Spartans want to ride their success into 2022, having a reliable run game will help massively. The good news is they have an entire offseason to figure it out, and reinforcements on the way with Berger coming in.

Despite early struggles, Payton Thorne finally put the team on his shoulders and won this game for the Spartans

Don’t get it twisted — Payton Thorne hasn’t been the reason the Spartans lost games this season. He came up just short of leading the Spartans to a comeback against Purdue earlier this year. He’s had some mistakes and growing pains along the way in his first year as a starter, sure, but he’s made up for it with some of the clutch throws he's made, and the calmness and poise he’s shown in close games. But, the Spartans have generally relied on Walker to bail them out of bad situations. That wasn’t the case on Thursday. In Walker’s absence, the Spartans needed Thorne to deliver and be the quarterback who can win them a game.

For most of the Peach Bowl, Thorne had an off game. He was missing throws that should be routine, not getting his feet set, and it looked like Pitt had gotten in his head. Around the five-minute mark of the third quarter, it looked like the Spartan offense had used all its gas, and that maybe MSU really did need Walker to win them these games.

But then something clicked for Thorne. After the defense got a key stop, Thorne led the offense right down the field and connected with Connor Heyward for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 20-16. The Spartans were back in it.

Then, the Spartans had the ball late in the fourth quarter and needed a touchdown to win the game. Again, Thorne led the Spartans down the field and this time lobbed a ball to Jayden Reed for a touchdown and the lead. It was one of the few times this season the Spartans had to rely on Thorne to deliver in crunch time, and he did. With an offseason to prepare for life without Walker, I’m fully expecting him to come out and be the quarterback the Spartans need him to be in 2022. Thorne also set a Michigan State program record for single-season touchdown passes in 2021 with 27.

Connor Heyward has Come Full Circle

One of the biggest surprises to me this season has been Connor Heyward’s bounce back. Just a couple of years ago, he entered the transfer portal, before ultimately returning to Michigan State and playing for Mel Tucker. He never really found his stride at running back, but this season the move to tight end/H-back was monumental for him.

He’s been huge in the running game this year as a blocker, but he still has the hands to run routes and be a serious threat in the passing game. He’s also not afraid of contact and fighting for more yards — he will run you over. His strength and competitiveness was evident in his touchdown catch in the Peach Bowl where he held on after taking a big hit, as well as breaking out of a tough tackle to pick up a first down at a different point in the game. It’s really nice to see him find success after all these years, and I truly believe he’ll find his way onto an NFL roster soon after the season he’s had. Heyward will be playing in the Reese’s Senior Bowl in February.

There’s plenty of work to be done in the offseason, but the Spartans are in good shape for the future, and Thursday’s comeback win over pitt showed that. Michigan State never backed down, even when it would’ve been easy to throw in the towel. While losing Walker and others is a huge blow, if the Spartans can fix the issues we saw Thursday and during the season, MSU will be just fine going forward.