How Michigan State pulled off one final rally in Peach Bowl to top off magical season

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ATLANTA — Almost all season, when Michigan State football appeared in second-half danger, a comeback seemed imminent.

A dominating pull-away surge at Miami, followed by an improbable punt return touchdown and overtime escape against Nebraska. A hard-fought grind at Indiana and a thrilling run to victory over Michigan. Even when it didn’t materialize, while getting shredded defensively in a loss to Purdue.

Call it a trend, call it resilience, call it culture shift. Call it whatever — the Spartans nearly always managed to somehow, some way, find an answer and win.

So why not one more time?

In Mel Tucker’s first bowl game. On the big stage of the Peach Bowl and the New Year’s Six. With Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt Panthers clamping down his old program in a way MSU fans remember fondly.

Payton Thorne, Jayden Reed and the Spartans made it happen with a two-touchdown rally on offense in the final 8-plus minutes. The defense answered with a critical third-down stop by Angelo Grose and a pick-six to seal it from Cal Haladay.

And in familiar fashion, No. 10 MSU closed out its resurgent 2021 season with another memorable finish and a 31-21 victory over No. 12 Pitt on Thursday night at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

JEFF SEIDEL: Payton Thorne's Peach Bowl finish reveals bright Michigan State football future

“The effort was there tonight, and there was an element of competitive greatness,” Tucker said in delivering the sixth 11-win season in program history and first since 2015. “That's being at your best when your best is needed. And that's what we've seen this season — the several games guys have made plays down the stretch to ice games, because there's something to be said for that. We do have pride in our program, we do have pride in our defense.

“We're not where we need to be, but we're going to get there.”

“There” is playing for a national championship in the College Football Playoff, something MSU (11-2) has done once since its inception in 2014. The Spartans have not been part of that conversation since Mark Dantonio’s magical three-year run between 2013-15 that put the program in the national spotlight regularly for the first time in nearly a half-century.

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker talks to quarterback Payton Thorne after the 31-21 win over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.
Michigan State coach Mel Tucker talks to quarterback Payton Thorne after the 31-21 win over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

Tucker and his players defied experts who projected his second-year team to be among the worst in the Big Ten, riding Kenneth Walker III for 12 games to stay in the hunt for a conference championship deep into November. And then Thursday, with the star running back opting out of the Peach Bowl and into the NFL draft, the Spartans once again willed their way to a win.

Even with the previously potent run game nonexistent without Walker, and Thorne admittedly playing poorly for most of the first three quarters.

The Spartans trailed 21-10 going into the fourth quarter, with Pitt’s second touchdown late in the first half indirectly coming off a Thorne interception and the Panthers’ third score coming directly off his fumble to open the third quarter, returned for a touchdown by Pitt’s Cam Bright. The redshirt sophomore quarterback struggled with his accuracy, overthrowing open receivers on deep routes and firing wide on short and intermediate passes.

“Coach Tuck was talking to me on the sidelines, kind of asked me what I needed or what I wanted to run or anything like that,” Thorne said. “And I just told him I like the plays that were being called, they're my favorite plays that we had in, and I just wasn't being accurate. He asked why. I said, ‘Probably my feet are messed up,’ because it always starts with your feet. But you can't really focus on that during the game, because you're looking at the defense the whole time.”

Thorne was 15-for-31 for 210 yards with a touchdown and the interception through three quarters, with a one-handed grab by Jalen Nailor accounting for 50 yards on one of the Spartans’ squandered first-half possessions.

Yet as soon as MSU got the ball back after a punt to open the fourth quarter, Thorne reemerged and began to find his rhythm with five straight completions to open a 13-play, 70-yard drive that chewed almost 7 minutes off the clock. He converted a fourth-and-6 with an 8-yard throw to Connor Heyward, then found his senior tight end again on third-and-goal for a leaping 15-yard touchdown with 8:06 to play that pulled MSU back within 21-16.

“For me, we talked about it on the sideline, just treat it like it's practice and treat it like you're just playing one play at a time,” said Thorne, who was 10-of-16 for 130 yards and seven first downs on third-down passes. “(Offensive coordinator Jay) Johnson talks about that a lot. I feel like in the fourth quarter, I was just playing one play at a time, just reading the defense and taking what they give us.”

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Pitt (11-3), down to its third-string quarterback, picked up 9 yards on Davis Beville’s pass to tight end Gavin Bartholomew on the second play of the ensuing drive. That set up a third-and-1 at the Panthers’ 31. And on a misdirection pitch to the right, with Vincent Davis charging in the open field toward a first down, Grose closed from the safety position with quickness and dragged down Pitt’s running back for a 2-yard loss to force a punt with a little more than 5½ minutes to play.

“We just had to clean up how we were playing,” Haladay said. “Our adjustments just were tackle better, drive on the ball better, break, just doing the little things better. That's what we did at the end of the day. We just needed to go out, get the ball back to our offense as quick as we could and give ourselves an opportunity to win the game.”

Thorne and the offense took over at MSU’s 29 and began marching toward victory. Three times on the 11-play, 71-yard final drive they converted third-down passes, first for 11 yards to Reed on third-and-7, then 10 yards on third-and-10 to Maliq Carr and, after a timeout with 3:05 to play, 14 yards to Nailor on third-and-10.

The Spartans hustled to the line after that last one. Then it became a one-on-one showdown between Reed and Pitt’s M.J. Devonshire. Thorne took the shotgun snap and lobbed a high spiral toward the front right pylon. Reed elevated above Devonshire, reached over the cornerback and pulled in a 22-yard touchdown with 2:51 remaining. Thorne’s strike to Nailor on the 2-point play put MSU ahead 24-21, its first lead of the second half.

Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed catches for a touchdown against Pittsburgh defensive back M.J. Devonshire during the second half of the 31-21 win over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.
Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed catches for a touchdown against Pittsburgh defensive back M.J. Devonshire during the second half of the 31-21 win over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

Friends since middle school, Reed said he wanted to make sure to keep Thorne positive even when he was struggling.

“Something I do as always. I want to be a big brother to him as I always do when things aren't going his way, because I know he's a really good player,” said Reed, who had six catches for 80 yards and two TDs. “I was trying my best to make sure he wasn't getting discouraged or anything like that. I was picking his head up when it was down.

“Obviously, things changed. He got his head straight, and he made plays when we needed him.”

Beville got the Panthers driving in the hurry-up, needing a field goal to send the game to overtime. They quickly moved 49 yards in seven plays and got to the Spartans’ 26, with Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Jordan Addison catching a pair of passes for 32 those yards.

But MSU came up with the big play at the right moment. Haladay dropped into coverage and, like he did at Indiana in mid-October, read the quarterback’s eyes and route perfectly. He stepped in front of a quick slant intended for Addison and plucked it away, with nothing but turf and teammates in front of him for a 78-yard interception return that was the longest in Peach Bowl history.

Michigan State linebacker Cal Haladay scores a touchdown after intercepting the ball from Pittsburgh quarterback Davis Beville during the second half of the 31-21 win over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.
Michigan State linebacker Cal Haladay scores a touchdown after intercepting the ball from Pittsburgh quarterback Davis Beville during the second half of the 31-21 win over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

It marked a culmination of everything Tucker started preaching — from when he took over and went 2-5 in his 2020 debut, into an offseason filled with personnel changes both inbound and outbound, and throughout a fall that provided an exhilarating ending to one of the most magical seasons in MSU history.

“We're relentless. We don't flinch. We believe in the process. We keep chopping,” Tucker said. “We're in great condition. We know that we can go deep into the fourth quarter and wear teams down, take them to the deep water. And that's where we want to be. We were able to get them to that point, and were able to finish.”

The next step will be to sustain and build on what the Spartans did all season. That means another grueling offseason program and potentially more roster changes through the portal. But they believe the 2021 season will provide a foundation for MSU to take that next step toward playing for the national title Tucker wants to bring back to East Lansing.

“This win is going to do a lot,” Heyward, a departing senior, said. “I think it's going to attract even more recruits. … I think a lot of people knows that it's a gritty, physical team and by-any-means team. But once they get up there, they'll like it even more. Once you're around the coaches and the whole culture, it just kind of rubs off on everybody.”

And Heyward summed up the legacy of this group succinctly: “I think the team will also be remembered as a team that never quit.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State's one last rally in Peach Bowl tops magical season