Atlanta, GA —Michigan State capped its turnaround from from a two-win season with a fourth-quarter comeback in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. The Spartans escaped with a 31-21 victory.
Quarterback Payton Thorne’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Jayden Reed gave No. 11 Michigan State the lead with less than three minutes remaining in the game. MSU overcame an 11-point deficit to beat No. 13 Pittsburgh 31-21 on Thursday night in the Peach Bowl.
The Spartans outscored the Panthers 21-0 in the final quarter.
“The whole game, my teammates just kept telling me to stay up and keep chopping like we talk about,” Thorne said.
Panthers QB Kenny Pickett, who opted out of the game after finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting watched the game from the coaches’ press box.
Linebacker Cal Haladay’s 78-yard interception return for a touchdown with 22 seconds remaining off of quarterback Davis Beville’s ended a last-minute comeback for the Panthers. Pittsburgh lost starting quarterback Nick Patti to a broken collarbone in the first quarter.
Beville took over for Patti and completed 14 of 18 passes for 149 yards with one touchdown and one pick.
“Davis did a great job, as good as you expect a third-team quarterback to do,” said Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi. “Wasn’t good enough to win the football game.”
Thorne on the other hand- threw two fourth-quarter touchdown darts as the Spartans (11-2) rallied after trailing 21-10.
“We got stronger and stronger as the game went,” second-year coach Mel Tucker said. “We were able to find a way to get it done.”
Defensive end John Morgan forced the fumble by MSU quarterback Payton Thorne that was returned by Bright for a 21-10 lead.
It was the second big play by Pitt’s blitzing defense. Brandon Hill’s interception late in the first half set up an 87-yard touchdown drive for a 14-10 advantage at the break.
Thorne’s 15-yard scoring pass to tight end Connor Heyward trimmed the Panthers’ lead to 21-16 with 8:06 remaining. MSU were stopped on their 2-point play, with Heyward kept out of the end zone on the reception.
Heyward, playing in his last game as a Spartan, caught a season-best five passes for 37 yards, including a diving 15-yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter. He also gained 7 yards on a fake punt in the third quarter.
Thorne completed 29 of 50 passes for 354 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Thorne’s scoring pass to Reed with 2:51 remaining gave Michigan State a 22-21 lead. A 2-point pass to Jalen Nailor pushed the lead to three points and never looked back after that.
Nailor led the way in yards with 108, but it was Reed who was able to snatched two touchdown receptions.
Michigan State recorded five sacks, second most in a game this season (seven vs. Nebraska on Sept. 25). Jacob Slade and Brandon Wright each had a career-best 1.5 sacks. Slade also tied his career high with two TFLs for 11 yards. MSU’s 10 tackles for loss were also second most in 2021 (11 vs. Nebraska).
The Spartans were without running back Kenneth Walker, who opted out of the game after finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Jordon Simmons led Michigan State with 16 carries for only 23 yards.
“Obviously, we’re missing Ken but we felt we could get some stuff in the pass game,” Thorne said. “In the fourth quarter we were able to string some stuff together and take advantage of the areas we thought we were going to be able to.”
Haladay was named the defensive MVP of the game and Jayden Reed was named the offensive MVP. Mel Tucker gets his first bowl victory as a head coach.