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Michigan State surges past Pittsburgh in Peach Bowl with huge fourth quarter

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Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story included the incorrect record for Michigan State.

ATLANTA — The two biggest stars for Michigan State football and Pitt sat out the Peach Bowl. And the absence of Kenneth Walker III for the Spartans and Kenny Pickett for the Panthers made big differences for their teams.

So Mel Tucker and MSU relied on a trusty, long-time connection to pull off one final fourth-quarter comeback to finish off a stunning and surprising season.

Payton Thorne connected with Jayden Reed for a 22-yard touchdown pass with 2:51 to play, and Thorne finished with a career-high 354 yards despite being off-target for long stretches to give the 10th-ranked Spartans a 31-21 victory over Pat Narduzzi and the 12th-ranked Panthers on Thursday night at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Pitt looked headed to at least a tying field goal attempt in the final minute behind third-string quarterback Davis Beville and star wide receiver Jordan Addison, but MSU linebacker Cal Haladay picked off Beville’s pass and returned it 78 yards for his second touchdown of the season and the seal on the Spartans’ second New Year’s Six bowl victory and first since beating Baylor in the Cotton Bowl Classic on Jan. 1, 2015 — Narduzzi’s final game before taking Pitt’s job.

MSU finished Tucker’s surprising second season at 11-2, the program’s sixth 11-win season and a win in the second-year Spartans coach’s first bowl in three seasons overall as a head coach. MSU opens its 2022 season Sept. 3 against Western Michigan at Spartan Stadium.

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Narduzzi, who was Mark Dantonio’s defensive coordinator with the Spartans from 2007-14, dropped his first game against MSU after winning an ACC championship and earning the Panthers’ first New Year’s Six bowl appearance. They ended the season 11-3.

Thorne finished 29-for-50 with three touchdowns and an interception, taking a knee after Justin White recovered a pooch kickoff following Haladay’s interception return. The sophomore quarterback went 14-for-19 for 145 yards and two scores in the fourth quarter.

Reed was named offensive most valuable player, while Haladay took the defensive honors with a team-leading 11 tackles.

Michigan State defensive end Brandon Wright (26) looks to tackle Pittsburgh quarterback Davis Beville (17) during the first half of the Peach Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.
Michigan State defensive end Brandon Wright (26) looks to tackle Pittsburgh quarterback Davis Beville (17) during the first half of the Peach Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

Reed, Thorne's middle school and high school teammate in Illinois, finished with six catches for 80 yards and two scores. Fellow junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor, who returned from a right hand injury, had six catches for 108 yards and a 2-point conversion catch after Reed’s touchdown. And Connor Heyward, in his final game as a Spartan near his hometown and against his father’s alma mater, caught a 15-yard touchdown with 8:06 to play in the fourth quarter to help the Spartans rally from a 21-10 deficit.

All-American running back Walker and Unitas Award winner Pickett both declared for the NFL draft and opted out of the Peach Bowl earlier this month. Without Walker, the Spartans ran 36 times for 56 yards, averaging just 1.6 yards per carry.

The Spartans got on the board first, set up by an opening kickoff by freshman Stephen Rusnak that bounced inside the goal line and pinned Pitt at its own 2 and a three-and-out stop by the defense.

A Reed punt return set up MSU deep in Panthers (11-3) territory, and Thorne found his high school teammate for a 28-yard touchdown strike on third-and-9. Matt Coghlin’s extra-point made it 7-0 Spartans just 1:49 into the game.

However, Pitt responded as quarterback Nick Patti – who took over for Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett, an NFL draft opt-out – directed a 12-play, 75-yard counterstrike that gnawed 5:14 off the clock with a punishing ground attack. Patti finished it with a 16-yard touchdown scramble on third-and-4, diving for the pylon to tie it up.

Michigan State defensive end Drew Jordan (2) celebrates a play against Pittsburgh during the first half of the Peach Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.
Michigan State defensive end Drew Jordan (2) celebrates a play against Pittsburgh during the first half of the Peach Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

But that play proved costly. Patti left the game and did not return, wearing a sling on his left arm. Beville, a 6-foot-6 sophomore who played in just two games during the regular season, replaced Patti on the Panthers’ following drive.

Thorne guided a strong answer drive after Patti’s score, moving MSU to Pitt’s 11-yard line with both his arm and legs moving the chains on third downs again. But a false start on third-and-8 at the Panthers’ 11 backed up the Spartans, and they had to settle for a 36-yard Coghlin field goal that made it 10-7 with 2:39 left in the first quarter.

The Spartans’ next drive, which included a spinning, one-handed catch by Jalen Nailor for 50 yards, stalled at the Pitt 15 after another MSU false start and a sack of Thorne. This time, Coghlin – who has been battling a right hip injury – missed a 33-yard attempt wide right.

Two possessions later, Thorne again guided the Spartans back into Panthers territory. But the sophomore quarterback threw his 10th interception of the season, telegraphing a pass to tight end Maliq Carr down the left sideline that Pitt’s Brandon Hill picked off at his own 12 with 2:03 to go before halftime.

The Panthers needed just over a minute to take the lead. Beville hit Addison for 11 yards, then scrambled away from MSU pressure and found the Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver again. Addison turned what appeared to be a broken play into a 52-yard gain deep into Spartan territory, and Beville found Jared Wayne for a 5-yard score to take a 14-10 lead into half.

Coming out of halftime, Thorne was stripped on a run and fumbled the ball to Pitt’s Cam Bright, who returned it 26 yards for a touchdown that made it 21-10 Panthers. That was the only score of the third quarter.

Michigan State wide receiver Jalen Nailor (8) runs against Pittsburgh defensive back Brandon Hill (9) during the first half of the Peach Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.
Michigan State wide receiver Jalen Nailor (8) runs against Pittsburgh defensive back Brandon Hill (9) during the first half of the Peach Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

MSU’s defense held Pitt to 274 total yards and 104 yards on the ground. The Panthers managed just 93 yards after halftime, 26 on the ground and 67 through the air. Belville went 14-for-18 for 149 yards, a touchdown and that final interception by Haladay that sent the Spartans into celebration one final time this season.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Peach Bowl 2021: Michigan State defeats Pitt after huge fourth quarter