ATLANTA — Payton Thorne pulled his Michigan State football teammates together Tuesday on the field at Mercedes Benz Stadium.
It was a speech in the moment, meant to get the Spartans to look around, soak in the importance of a New Year’s Six bowl and what led them to the opulent NFL stadium in the first place.
“I just said that a bowl game like this, it doesn't come around every single year,” the sophomore quarterback said later that afternoon. “Not everybody can say they played in a bowl game like this. And to win a bowl game like this is something you can take with you and build on.”
To do so, Mel Tucker and No. 10 MSU must take down an old friend turned foe in Pat Narduzzi and No. 12 Pitt in the Peach Bowl. Kickoff is 7 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.
The game may have lost much of its national luster when the MSU All-American running back Kenneth Walker III and the Pitt Heisman Trophy-finalist quarterback Kenny Pickett both declared for the NFL draft earlier this month on the same day and opted out of playing in the bowl game. But for MSU (10-2), which discovered newfound life in its offense for the first time since its 2015 run to the College Football Playoff semifinals, the Peach Bowl represents an opportunity to show it was not merely a one-man path to improvement and that Tucker’s second season is building toward the promise of remaining significant players in the hunt for national championship for years to come.
“This is a big stage and an opportunity to send our seniors out on a very positive note and also gain some momentum for next season,” Tucker said Wednesday. “Our team is really excited to get on the field tomorrow night.”
Tucker went 2-5 during his COVID-shortened 2020 debus season following back-to-back 7-6 seasons in Mark Dantonio’s final two years as head coach. MSU’s offense struggled in all three of those years and most of the past half-decade since last winning the Big Ten in its 2015 CFP season.
Walker, who won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back and Walter Camp Player of the Year award, was a major reason for it in finishing second in the nation during the regular season in ground yards. And defenses’ attention on him allowed Thorne to blossom in his first season as a starting quarterback, along with redshirt junior weapons Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor.
Should the two receivers return next season along with Thorne and sophomore wideout Tre Mosley, that would be a significant nucleus at key skill positions on offense despite losing plenty of veterans on the line.
Thursday’s game against Atlantic Coast Conference champ Pitt (11-2) could be a springboard for other younger players to get their chance to show they are building blocks for sustained success.
“If there's some young guys we can get some more time in there — because with time comes more experience, confidence and you begin to play at a new level — we'll definitely try to do that when it's appropriate,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said Tuesday. “But obviously, we've got to try to do what we can to help our team be successful.”
The same holds on defense, where MSU loses defensive ends Drew Beesley, Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Jordan after Thursday. And facing Pickett’s replacement Nick Patti, a relatively inexperienced junior, gives the Spartans’ struggling secondary a chance for some atonement after allowing a nation-worst 337.7 passing yards per game and giving up 17 of its 26 passing touchdowns in the final five games while getting torched by the best passing attacks in the Big Ten down the stretch.
“It's the finale of this season. You can either end on a good note or bad note,” sophomore safety Darius Snow said Monday. “I use it as a chance to really jump into next year, go out there, play hard, physical, attack the ball. If we play well this week, it really gives us a lot of confidence going into next year.”
MICHIGAN STATE VS. PITT: Peach Bowl scouting report, prediction
Narduzzi, who spent eight seasons at MSU as Dantonio’s defensive coordinator and the past seven as Pitt’s head coach, came away impressed from afar from what he’s seen from Tucker this year.
“He's done an incredible job,” Narduzzi said Wednesday. “You can throw out the COVID year. I think you can throw it out for everybody. … To come in and do the job he's done after the COVID year, he rehauled the rosters just to get guys in that fit his scheme, offensively and defensively. When you look at that and you look at the success he has had, what else can you say except outstanding job?”
For the Spartans, who many picked to finish last in the Big Ten before the season, they could add Peach Bowl champions and the sixth 11-win season in program history on to the turnaround few besides they themselves believed could happen this quickly.
“We're not satisfied with just getting here, we're not just satisfied with winning this in terms of down the road,” said Thorne, who has thrown for 2,886 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first year as a starter. “To send your seniors out the right way and New Year's Six bowl, and then I was saying to start a freshman’s legacy — he's got that on his resumé when you accomplish that.
“Bowl games do matter, although people may think they don't with the playoff now. They still do. I think our team's motivated. And we're looking to finish our year out the right way and get rolling into next year on a positive note.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football works to win Peach Bowl, build for 2022