Pitt draws favorable matchup in Peach Bowl vs. Michigan State

Michigan+State+quarterback+Payton+Thorne+throws+a+pass+during+their+game+against+Penn+State+in+November%2C+in+East+Lansing%2C+Michigan.+Michigan+State+won+30-27.+

AP Photo/Al Goldis

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne throws a pass during their game against Penn State in November, in East Lansing, Michigan. Michigan State won 30-27.

By Frankie Richetti, Staff Writer

Shortly after winning its first-ever ACC Championship, Pitt football learned that it will head to Atlanta, Georgia, to face off against the Michigan State Spartans in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 30.

This will be the two teams’ first meeting since 2007, when Michigan State defeated Pitt 17-13. The Spartans come into this game with a 10-2 record and are No. 10 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. It’s been a short rebuild for head coach Mel Tucker who — after struggling through a 2-5 season in 2020 — has Michigan State in a New Year’s Six Bowl in just his second season at the helm.

Pitt will head into Atlanta as the No. 12 team in the CFP rankings with an 11-2 overall record after its euphoric 45-21 win over Wake Forest. The Panthers’ last trip to a New Year’s Six Bowl came in 2004, when they were drubbed 35-7 by legendary head coach Urban Meyer and the Utah Utes.

Two players that were in Heisman Trophy conversations all season — Pitt redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett and MSU junior running back Kenneth Walker — headline the matchup. Here’s what to watch for later this month when Pitt looks for its first 12-win season since 1976. 

Sign up for our newsletter

Get Pitt and Oakland news in your inbox three times a week.

Narduzzi’s reunion 

When Pat Narduzzi left his role as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator to take Pitt’s head coaching job in 2015, he said he had one goal — to bring a championship to Pittsburgh. That came to fruition last weekend, on the heels of a defensive performance that mirrored his success at Michigan State.

Narduzzi’s defense blanked the No. 5 scoring offense in the country over three quarters. The Panthers picked off Wake Forest sophomore quarterback Sam Hartman four times and sacked him five times. The same elements that made Narduzzi an attractive hire years prior — such as his ability to find and develop under-recruited talent — were present when Pitt finally reached the mountaintop of the ACC.

Pitt’s defense consists of under-recruited players — such as junior linebacker SirVocea Dennis, a former two-star recruit who was at one point committed to Air Force — that embrace an underdog role and play inspired football. It is players like Dennis, senior nose tackle Deslin Alexandre and junior defensive tackle Calijah Kancey — both former three-star recruits — that have starred for Narduzzi on the defensive side of the ball.

Before being poached by Pitt, Narduzzi’s defense at Michigan State ranked first in the Big Ten and top 10 nationally in yards per game for three consecutive seasons. When Spartan fans tune into the game later this month, Narduzzi believes they will be reminded of his tenure at Michigan State when watching Pitt defend.

“[They’ll see the] same aggressive style of defense that we had up in East Lansing,” Narduzzi said.

Walker vs. Pitt’s run defense

Michigan State’s Walker is arguably the top running back in the nation this season. His numbers — 263 carries for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns — speak for themself. Walker was in the Heisman Trophy conversation, and he’s a finalist for the Doak Walker award, which is presented to college football’s best running back.

Walker has rushed for more than 100 yards in four of his last five games heading into the Spartans’ matchup with Pitt, including a five touchdown performance in a 37-33 win over Michigan. But Pitt, which is No. 6 in the country in rush yards per game, will be the best run defense Walker has seen all year.

The Panthers were in a similar spot a few weeks ago against Syracuse’s first-year running back Sean Tucker, and they held him in check. Tucker, the ACC’s leading rusher, carried the ball 13 times for just 29 yards. Still, Narduzzi knows that the Panthers can’t be complacent.

“It’ll be a big challenge, and just because you stop one at Syracuse doesn’t mean you can stop one at Michigan State,” Narduzzi said. “It’ll take a lot of work, and it’ll be a challenge.”

It’s also important to consider the Orange ran a very one dimensional offense. Michigan State wants to run the ball, but they can have success in the air as well. Sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne is nearing 3,000 passing yards on the season and has thrown 24 touchdown passes. Spartan wide receivers — juniors Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, who combined for 14 touchdown receptions this season — will pose a serious threat to the Panthers’ 106th-ranked pass defense.

Walker vs. the Panthers’ run defense will be an interesting chess match, especially if Thorne and the MSU passing attack have success that opens the offense up for him.

Pickett poised to put up big numbers

Pickett and the Panther offense probably were excited when they learned of their bowl matchup. Michigan State enters dead last in the FBS in pass defense at No. 130. Meanwhile, Pitt is currently ranked as the No. 3 scoring offense in the country and the No. 6 passing offense.

Sophomore wide receiver and Biletnikoff Award finalist Jordan Addison is coming off a 126-yard outing against Wake Forest, and could earn a similar statline in the Peach Bowl if he and Pickett can expose a poor back end.

Michigan State ranks No. 12 in the country in sacks, averaging just more than three a game, so expect the Spartans to send pressure at Pickett to help out their secondary.

Prediction: Pitt captures first 12-win season since 1976 in a statement win

Pitt still has a lot to play for. The Panthers have only won 12 games once in their history. Pitt hasn’t finished in the top 10 since 1982 or won a New Year’s Six Bowl in the modern era. That could all change on Dec. 30 in Atlanta.

This season will live in Panther football lore forever, but it can become even sweeter. The Panthers match up with the Spartans better than they do with any other potential Peach Bowl opponent. Michigan State will test the Panthers, but it doesn’t have the firepower to outscore Pitt’s offense.

Getting into a shootout with the Panthers isn’t a recipe for success. Michigan State will look to control the clock and grind the game out with Walker. But the Panther defense will do just enough to win. The offense will be too much to overcome, and Pitt will finish off its season with a top 10 win. The Panthers will defeat the Spartans 37-31, and Pickett will end his career on a high note.