Michigan State vs. Pittsburgh: 5 reasons the Spartans will win the Peach Bowl
No Kenneth Walker III, no problem? Well, No. 10 Michigan State is probably hoping that will be the case Thursday when it faces No. 12 Pittsburgh in the 2021 Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The Spartans’ star running back opted out to focus on the NFL Draft. He’s coming off an incredible year, earning All-America honors, winning the Doak Walker Trophy and being recognized as one of the best — if not the best — running backs in the country. In terms of local feats, Walker had one of the top seasons of any player in MSU history, let alone just the running backs.
But on the flipside, Pitt QB Kenny Pickett, a Heisman finalist, won’t be on the field, either. Like Walker, Pickett is focusing on the upcoming draft.
While the Peach Bowl is an important bowl, it’s not a College Football Playoff game. More and more, top players are opting out of “lesser” bowls in order to prepare for their professional careers. While it hurts the viewers and spectators, the decision is theirs to make — they’re just thinking of their future.
It’d be nice to see Walker for MSU and Pickett for Pitt.
The Spartans could certainly use Walker. But luckily for MSU, coach Mel Tucker has a few other options that could help secure a postseason victory over the Panthers, who are coached by former MSU DC Pat Narduzzi.
Jalen Nailor is one of the fastest players in the nation. Clocking a 40-yard dash at 4.36 seconds, “Speedy” can do a lot of things for the Spartans — and in 2021, he did a lot to help one of the Big Ten’s most potent offenses.
And keep in mind, he did all of this in just 8 games. He suffered an apparent wrist injury against Michigan and never returned. However, he’s expected to play in the Peach Bowl. If he does, the Spartans should have a decent shot at winning. If it makes any difference, Michigan State won each of the 8 games Nailor played in this past season, so there’s that.
In those 8 games, Nailor has 31 catches for 587 yards and 6 touchdowns. When he’s in MSU’s lineup, he’s a focal point of opposing defenses. He’s also pretty lethal on the kick return, having 8 for 163 yards (20.4-yard average).
They don’t have the Big Ten’s No. 1 rusher in Walker, but the Spartans have the No. 8 WR as part of a great tandem of dangerous wideout/special team stars.
Jayden Reed is another do-all for Michigan State. When it comes to having a pair of dual-threat guys, there are few similar combinations among teams in the nation. That’s an advantage for the Spartans, who will have Jayden Reed playing in the Peach Bowl. The 6-foot, 185-pound redshirt junior could benefit from a big game against the Panthers, so he’s certainly a player to watch on Thursday.
He was the No. 5 WR in the Big Ten, in terms of yardage, and the No. 4 return man. At one time, he was the national leader in all-purpose yards. He was the only player in the country with 900 receiving yards, 200 on punt returns and 300 on kick returns. Yeah, it’s one of those made-up Sports Center/social media stats, but it’s still pretty impressive.
He might be the only Michigan State player to do that, or one of few to ever achieve such a stat line from any team. Who knows? But the guy puts up yards and makes plays. Pitt allowed 257 passing yards per game in 2021, so Michigan State may capitalize on that via Reed.
Payton Thorne proved that he’s able to lead an offense, so there’s no debating his worth to Michigan State. He wasn’t a superstar by any means, but he was an adequate game-manager type. As long as he connects with playmakers, which will likely be through the air, the Spartans should be able to string together a win over Pitt. Again, this is assuming Thorne plays one of his cleanest games of the season. The Panthers averaged 1.2 interceptions and 1.6 takeaways per game this past year, so taking care of the football will be important as usual.
Michigan State wouldn’t have gone 10-2 without Thorne, who threw for 2,886 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2021.
Jacub’s last go
At 6-3 and 255 pounds, and with a 4.80-second 40-yard dash, Jacub Panasiuk’s profile doesn’t exactly scream high-end prospect. He’s not one, either. He’ll probably be a late-rounder or UDFA. But the Spartans senior has been an anchor for the past 2 seasons, both on and off the field. In order to inflate his draft stock, he’ll want to have a dominant performance in the Peach Bowl.
Being a senior, it’s likely that Panasiuk will want to leave something for the next group to follow while also leaving some sort of personal legacy in East Lansing. Bowl games mean different things to different people. In this case, it’s Panasiuk’s last ride in an MSU uniform and an excellent opportunity to catch attention from scouts.
Mel Tucker won B1G COTY honors and just signed a 10-year deal worth up to $95 million. Michigan State just announced a $15 million plan to upgrade the Skandalaris Building and other football facilities. Tucker already secured a $250,000 bonus for reaching a non-Playoff NY6 bowl. He’s among the highest-paid coaches in the country, and he’s at the helm of a program that appears to be capable of reclaiming elite status in the Big Ten and returning to the road toward national prominence.
The Peach Bowl will be a chance for Tucker to prove that he can win with any team he fields, regardless of stars opting out or other circumstances.