ATLANTA — One of the greatest seasons in Pitt football history ran out of steam at the end.
Playing without its top two quarterbacks and a host of key defensive players, the Panthers saw a 21-10 lead in the Peach Bowl slowly slip away before Michigan State finally landed the last punch of the fight.
The game-winning score came on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Payton Thorne to Jayden Reed with 2:51 remaining, the end of a drive with three backbreaking third down conversions against an exhausted defense.
The Panthers drove the ball to the edges of field goal range on a last-gasp drive, but linebacker Cal Haladay stepped in front of a pass intended for Jordan Addison and took it back the other way for a 78-yard pick six to ice the contest.
Right from the jump, the Panthers were chasing the game. A special teams mishap on the opening kickoff led to Pitt starting the game at its own 2-yard-line, and the ensuing three-and-out gave MIchigan State the ball deep in plus territory. Three plays later Thorne found Reed for a 28-yard touchdown pass that opened the scoring.
Pitt responded with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive behind Patti, but it came with a hefty cost. The quarterback injured his left shoulder diving for the pylon on his 16-yard touchdown run, and did not return to the game.
That left quarterbacking responsibilities to Nick Beville, and the early growing pains were evident. The Panthers gained just a meek 14 total yards on 13 snaps in the first three possessions with Beville, but the defense held up its end of the bargain to stay in the game.
Michigan State scored just three total points on four trips inside the Pitt 30-yard-line, including a crucial interception by Brandon Hill that held the deficit at one possession late in the first half. What followed was Pitt’s best drive of the game, an 87-yard march in just 61 seconds highlighted by a 52-yard pass to Addison.
Belville threw his first career touchdown to Jared Wayne, giving the Panthers a 14-10 lead at halftime.
The second half got off to a perfect start when Cam Bright recorded Pitt’s fifth defensive touchdown of the season on a 26-yard fumble return, but that was the end of the scoring line for Pitt. The offensive line struggled in pass protection and failed to extend the lead going into the final frame.
And against a defense that by the end of the night faced 86 offensive snaps and 49 in the second half alone, the Panthers were running on fumes.
Michigan State was 4-for-5 on third downs and 1-for-1 on fourth downs during the comeback, none more crucial than a 15-yard touchdown pass to Connor Heyward on third-and-goal that brought the Spartans to within a score at 21-16 with eight minutes left.
A negative rushing play on a third-and-1 immediately returned the ball to the Spartans, and finally they took the lead on the touchdown pass to Reed and sealed the win on Haladay’s interception return.
Pitt finished the season with an 11-3 record.