Michigan State student newspaper breaks down Spartan strengths, weaknesses ahead of Peach Bowl


AP Photo/Al Goldis

Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III (9) runs with the ball during the first quarter of a game against University of Michigan at Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan. on Oct. 30.

By Nick Aaron, For The Pitt News

Still riding high from the program’s first ACC title, the Panthers are gearing up to compete in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. The Panthers will face a very unfamiliar opponent in Atlanta on Dec. 30 — the Michigan State Spartans.

Pitt last clashed with the Spartans more than a decade ago, losing two years in a row in 2006 and 2007. Pitt is looking to score its first-ever victory in a matchup, as the Panthers are winless in the all-time series with the Spartans, with six losses and one tie.

To learn more about the Panthers’ upcoming opponent, The Pitt News talked with Jared Ramsey, a sports writer at Michigan State’s student newspaper, The State News.

Pitt must stop Kenneth Walker III

The Michigan State offense will go as far as junior running back Walker takes it. A transfer from Wake Forest, Walker emerged this year as one of college football’s elite backs, racking up 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground this season. Walker has had success because of a well-rounded skill set that balances power and finesse.

“He leads the nation in missed tackles,” Ramsey said. “He’s very good at keeping a low center of gravity and being able to just change direction on a dime.”

Stopping Walker is a daunting, but not impossible task. Pitt currently boasts the No. 1 rush defense in the ACC and held highly touted Syracuse running back Sean Tucker to just 29 yards on the ground two weeks ago.

As seen in games such as the Nov. 20 matchup vs. Ohio State, it’s clear that the Spartan offense is largely ineffective when defenses hold Walker in check. But it isn’t quite a one-man show on offense. If Pitt sells out to stop the run, the Spartans will be able to pass effectively.

“MSU’s passing game has been solid too,” Ramsey said. “[Sophomore quarterback] Payton Thorne, this is his first year starting, he’s stepped up and he’s done a pretty good job.”

Thorne has been impressive, as his 2,886 yards, 24 touchdowns and only nine interceptions are respectable numbers for a first-year starter. Junior wide receiver Jayden Reed is Thorne’s top target, who led the nation in all-purpose yards at one point during the year.

“He’s really explosive, especially in the return game too,” Ramsey said.

Although stopping Walker is the first priority, Pitt’s defense must remember that this Spartan offense is not as one-dimensional as it may seem.

Tale of two units for Spartan defense

While the Spartan defense boasts a potent front-seven, the secondary is among the worst in the nation, according to Ramsey.

“Defensively, I would say MSU’s strength is definitely in the front-seven,” Ramsey said. “Up front, it starts with Jacub Panasiuk, defensive end. He’s very good at getting in the backfield and setting the edge on runs.”

Ramsey also said redshirt first-year linebacker Cal Haladay is a key piece to the Spartan rush defense, with 78 tackles this year. If the Panthers’ committee of running backs can’t gain ground against the Spartan front, Pitt can resort to attacking the Michigan State defense through the air.

“The pass defense isn’t the best,” Ramsey said. “I definitely think Pitt’s offense can take advantage of that.”

Michigan State’s secondary has certainly been one of the worst in college football, as it gives up 337 passing yards per game. This certainly bodes well for the Panthers’ offense, which averages 350 passing yards per game.

“They’ve had three different quarterbacks set passing records for their schools against them,” Ramsey said.

Redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett and company, no strangers to gaudy passing numbers, should have a field day on the Spartan secondary.

Offensive shootout is likely

Between Pitt’s high-octane passing game and Michigan State’s physical run game with Walker, fans can expect plenty of points.

“I do think that this will be a very high-scoring game for both teams, and both these teams’ strengths are in their offenses,” Ramsey, who is confident that Walker will have a big day on the ground, said. “I think he’s going to want to finish his college career on a high note, I think he’s going to be really motivated.”

Like many other Michigan State fans, Ramsey isn’t too confident in the Spartans’ ability to keep the Panthers off the scoreboard.

“It’ll be interesting to see if MSU can get a push up front and try to slow down Pitt’s passing game,” Ramsey said.

Whipple’s departure and Pickett’s uncertain status

Pitt offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s decision to leave the program to take a job at Nebraska could be an X-factor in the offensive chess match.

“It’ll be interesting to see if they have the same strategy,” Ramsey said.

While the departure of a play caller might be cause for concern for another squad, Pitt’s passing offense still has plenty of weapons. It should still be the high-flying unit Panther fans have come to know and love this season.

“I think with the talent Pitt has on offense with Kenny Pickett under center, if he plays, I really don’t see Pitt missing a beat, especially against MSU’s secondary,” Ramsey said.

Pickett expressed uncertainty earlier this week about whether he would choose to play in the Peach Bowl or to opt out, after initially saying he would play in the game.

Pitt wins, in close and high-scoring game

Despite believing that Michigan State has a talented front-seven, Ramsey feels this one could get ugly if Pickett does decide to play.

“If Pickett can get into a rhythm, it could end up like the Ohio State game,” Ramsey said.

Ohio State routed the Spartans earlier this year in Columbus — a game where the weakness of Michigan State’s secondary was painfully apparent. That should be the story of the game, assuming Pickett elects to play.

“Michigan State has really struggled against good quarterbacks this year,” Ramsey said. “I’m kind of leaning towards Pitt, just because Kenny Pickett is electric.”

Pitt’s matchup against Michigan State will kickoff on Dec. 30 at 7 p.m. and air nationally on ESPN.