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Pitt Football

Peach Primer: Michigan State Stands in the Way of Program History

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It’s been 16 years since Pitt’s last BCS (or New Year’s Six equivalent) Bowl appearance, but Pitt is back. With a 7 p.m. kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, Pitt will take on No. 10 Michigan State in the Peach Bowl with the chance to chase some program history.

Of course, Pitt will look a little different from the team that beat Wake Forest in the ACC championship game on Dec. 4. Kenny Pickett is out, Nick Patti is in. Taysir Mack is out, Melquise Stovall and Jaylon Barden may be back in. Mark Whipple won’t be calling offense plays, but Tim Salem will. Even without Damarri Mathis, Pitt’s defense is ready to end the season on a high note — vowing to improve since the West Michigan loss months ago.

So, let’s take a look at just who Pitt will be playing in the Peach Bowl this season.

Led by Big Ten Coach of the Year — and the $95 million man — Mel Tucker, Michigan State orchestrated the biggest single-season swing in team history after going 2-5 in a COVID-19 shortened season in 2020. Tucker has breathed life back into the stagnant Spartans.

With Tucker in his second season at Michigan State, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton are also both in their second seasons as the respective heads of the Spartans’ offense and defense.

Neither unit is especially eye-catching — now that Michigan State has received an opt-out from its most important player — but the teamwork that allowed the Spartans to fight to a 10-2 season is still in full effect.

Michigan State’s Offense to Operate Business as Usual

If you thought that Michigan State might be mailing in the Peach Bowl with star Kenneth Walker III opting out for the NFL, think again. Payton Thorne gave an impassioned speech after the Spartans’ Tuesday practice, setting the tone for an offense that will have a lot to prove.

“After practice today, we talked a little bit as a team,” Thorne said Tuesday. “And I just said that a bowl game like this, it doesn’t come around every single year. Not everybody can say they played in a bowl game like this.

“To win a bowl game like this is something you can take with you and build on. We’re not satisfied with just getting here. We’re not just satisfied with winning this in terms of down the road. But to send your seniors out the right way, New Year’s Six bowl, and then I was saying to start a freshman legacy. He’s got that on his resumé when you accomplish that.”

With Walker, a unanimous All-American running back who won Doak Walker and Walter Camp Awards, not suiting up for Michigan State, the Spartans have to replace 1,646 yards (137 yards per game) and 18 touchdowns (1.5 touchdowns per game) of offense. It will be a tall task, but Connor Heyward has faith in the running back stable.

“Just them all coming together to push each other to become better every day at practice,” Heyward said Tuesday. “You’ve got Harold, Jordon, Elijah, Donovan Eaglin — I think the room will be fine. Obviously, Ken is a special player, but I think those guys will rally together and get the job done.”

However, he pointed to one particular running back — the one making a return to hometown Atlanta — as the potential difference-maker: Jordan Simmons.

“Jordon is a young back, but they were still pushing each other to get better every day in practice,” Heyward said. “I think Jordon is more than prepared for this opportunity. And I told him just go out there, do what you need to do, don’t do too much. Just take those 2-, 3-yard runs, cuz those will lead to bigger ones, home run ones.”

Simmons was Michigan State’s second-leading rusher in 2021, adding 255 yards on 54 carries. He didn’t find the end zone on the ground, but he did once through the air. Elijah Collins is the only other running back with at least 50 yards, adding 87 yards on 12 carries. Harold Joiner and Donovan Eaglin combined for just 17 carries.

With a running back by committee approach likely giving way to the hot hand over the course of the Peach Bowl, Thorne will likely be expected to use his arm a bit more than his per-game average. He threw for 2,886 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air this season, completing 61 percent of his passing attempts at 8.5 yards per attempt with nine interceptions.

Thorne isn’t exactly a gunslinger, but he is an accurate quarterback who can make enough plays to win games — although, he did struggle in games against Michigan and Ohio State this season.

However, Thorne will have both of his top targets healthy and playing together for the first time since Oct. 30. Jaden Nailor is set to return following a four-game absence, giving Thorne another explosive option.

Nailor caught 31 balls for 587 yards and six touchdowns this season, including a 221-yard, three-touchdown performance against Rutgers, and Jayden Reed caught 53 balls for 946 yards and eight touchdowns this season — both averaging about 18 yards per catch. And Heyward added 289 yards and a touchdown as Michigan State’s top tight end.

It’s a talent receiving corps, with a foundation set by a big, physical offensive line (sound familiar?), and they even have a secret weapon. When Thorne was the scout team quarterback for Michigan State in 2019, he practiced against a Spartans’ defense that looks quite familiar to Pitt’s now — since it was then-head coach Mark Dantonio’s.

“I remember watching the film and listening to a couple of our coaches talk on the previous staff and it did remind me, my freshman year I played against that the whole year,” Thorne said. “And I played with Jayden as well on that scout team. So I do remember that. And it was fun to go against our defense every day. We had a really good defense that year. And those are experiences that I’ll remember and have in my back pocket.”

If Pitt can get after Thorne, create pressure and force him to make throws off balance or on the run, it should be advantage Pitt. However, that will still require Reed and Nailor to be locked down, limiting any deep balls or catch and run opportunities.

Additional Reading

Pitt defensive coordinator Randy Bates on what to expect from MSU offense

Michigan State expects opt-outs and injuries to impact offensive depth

Top Michigan State wide receiver duo expected to be reunited against Pitt

Can Michigan State’s Defense Capitalize Against Nick Patti?

Michigan State defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton is well aware of the threat that Jordan Addison poses to the Spartans’ defense, but it remains to be seen whether that prior knowledge will make much of an impact.

“And, yes, we’re going to try to do some things to help take him away and put people over the top of him or do whatever we can,” Hazelton said Monday. “He’s an outstanding player. You don’t win the Biletnikoff without being an outstanding player. And he’s a guy, we need to know where he is and where he’s at. Because they’ll put him everywhere.”

Of course, it also remains to be seen just how much — if any — of an impact Pickett’s absence will be for Addison. With the debut of the Patti-Addison connection, it literally couldn’t come against a better pass defense matchup in the FBS.

It’s well-known by now that Michigan State’s pass defense is the worst in the FBS, giving up nearly 340 yards through the air per game. Yes, the Spartans have faced a lot of passes, a lot of very, very good receivers and quarterbacks, but it’s a unit that’s susceptible to giving up mass amounts of yards.

While Addison is a known quantity, Patti is not. But Michigan State is not going to underestimate Pitt’s backup-turned-starter either.

“Film-wise, obviously, we don’t have as much film as we do with Kenny Pickett,” Darius Snow said Monday. “But we’re going to treat him like he’s a great quarterback. Nick Patti, redshirt junior, is from the same state as Mr. Pickett. And we’re going to assume that he’s the best quarterback we’ve ever played. That’s just how we approach every single game.”

While Michigan State’s secondary feels like it has something to prove against Patti and Pitt’s high-powered defense, Hazelton feels like it’s much deeper than that. It’s not just defensive backs or defensive linemen, it’s a whole defense.

“I think that it’s not just the secondary, though,” Hazelton said. “You know what I mean? Defense is a team thing. I think it has to go all together. Yes, the secondary, we love them to finish strong and be able to say, OK, we’ve got something to hang our hat on. We played the best receiver in the country and we did a great job with him and we limited some of his explosives and we tackled him and drove him, understood the thing.

“But really it comes back to the D line too. It’s about them, too. It’s not just a one-part thing. We have to be able to get pressure on the quarterback. When we blitz our backers or DBs or whoever is blitzing has to get home. And it’s the thing that we all have to work together.”

With Quavaris Crouch doubtful due to injury and Michael Dowell out due to entering the transfer portal, it’s the continuation of further instability for Michigan State’s defense this season. Crouch racked up 75 tackles (37 solo), two tackles for loss, two sacks, defended three passes and forced and recovered a fumble while Dowell added 40 tackles (26 solo), one tackle for loss and three passes defended, it’s only adding up.

However, it’s still a veteran unit laden with talent. Xavier Henderson led Michigan State in tackles for loss as a safety, racking up 94 tackles (59 solo), 10 tackles for loss, three sacks, an interception and two passes defended. Fellow safety Snow is second on. the team in tackles behind Henderson with 86 (61 solo), and he’s added 5.5 tackles for loss, an interception, two passes defended and a fumble recovery.

While the duo racks up tackles and tackles for loss, assisting a defensive front led by Jacub Panasuik (who has racked up nine tackles for loss and a team-high six sacks), inconsistency in the backend has been the Achilles heel for Michigan State this season.

With Patti making his first start since 2019, it’s Michigan State’s chance to cut down a high-powered offense led by a young, unproven quarterback, but like much regarding the Pitt offense-MSU defense equation, that remains to be seen.

Additional Reading

Nick Patti isn’t Kenny Pickett, but he’s already earned Pitt’s respect

With Pitt’s offensive line returning next season, the Peach Bowl could be one last warmup

What to expect from new interim offensive coordinator Tim Salem’s offense 

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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