ATLANTA — It looks like Ohio State is about to have added company atop the Big Ten East for the near future.
Michigan ended the Buckeyes’ four-year reign atop the division and advanced to the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines look like they are poised to fulfill their promise with Jim Harbaugh at the helm. Talent is rolling in and the Wolverines stand two games from a national title.
And now there appears to be another threat from the Great Lakes State. No. 10 Michigan State put the finishing touches on an unexpectedly brilliant season with a thrilling 31-21 win over No. 12 Pitt in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The team that had an over/under win total of four in the preseason finished 11-2 and will be ranked inside the top 10 for the first time since 2015.
“It was a tremendous victory to get to 11 wins,” said Michigan State coach Mel Tucker. “It was quite an accomplishment. And doing it as a team, playing complementary football, it was just tremendous. The best is ahead for us.”
The Spartans adopted a “keep chopping” theme from Tucker, and they certainly lived up to that on Thursday night. Michigan State was forced to erase a 21-10 fourth-quarter deficit and scored three touchdowns in the final 8:06 to finally put away a Pitt team that played with its third-string quarterback for the final 3 1/2 quarters. Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett opted out of the game, and his replacement, Nick Patti, was injured scoring a touchdown on Pitt’s first drive. That left sophomore Davis Beville at the controls.
“Davis did a great job,” said Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi. “As good as you expect a third-team quarterback to do. Wasn’t good enough to win the football game. All our guys hung in there and played their tails off for him. We just didn’t make enough plays in all phases.”
Pitt built that 21-10 lead thanks to a bend-but-don’t break defense and a defensive score on a fumble return by Cam Bright early in the third quarter. But a brilliant touchdown catch by Jayden Reed, his second of the night, gave MSU a 24-21 lead with 2:51 to play, and after Pitt drove into field goal range, Cal Haladay sealed the game for the Spartans with a 78-yard interception return for a touchdown with 22 ticks left.
“We’re relentless,” Tucker said. “We don’t flinch. We believe in the process. We keep chopping. We’re in great condition. We know that we can go deep into the fourth quarter and wear teams down, take them to the deep water. And that’s where we want to be. And we were able to get them to that point and were able to finish.”
The Spartans have bet big, big money on this breakthrough season not being a one-hit wonder with Tucker. In late November, Michigan State fought off any suitors for the coach and gave him an eye-opening, market-setting 10-year, $95 million contract. He may want to head back to the NFL someday — he spent 10 years in it as an assistant — but in the short to medium term, he is going to be in East Lansing. And early indications are that he is capable of building a program that can live in the upper echelon of the Big Ten East right alongside Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.
Michigan State is bidding farewell to star running back Kenneth Walker III, who finished sixth in Heisman voting after a phenomenal season in which he gained 1,636 yards in 12 games and scored five touchdowns in MSU’s victory over Michigan. Walker passed on the bowl game to avoid injury and prepare for the NFL Draft.
But the Spartans actually have a chance to be better on offense in 2022. Quarterback Payton Thorne, who was 29 for 50 for 354 yards with three TDs, one interception and one fumble against Pitt, will be back for his junior season after starting all 13 games. He completed 60 percent of his passes with a school-record 27 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He displayed leadership all week in Atlanta with Walker out, giving the team an impassioned speech after one practice leading into the bowl. A quality pocket passer, Thorne showed against Pitt he can be dangerous with his feet as well, and he was at his best rallying his team in the fourth quarter.
“We were missing Ken, but we felt we could get some stuff in the pass game,” Thorne said. “And we weren’t really hitting them for a lot of the game. But in the fourth quarter we were able to string some stuff together and take advantage of the areas that we thought we were going to be able to.”
Like C.J. Stroud at Ohio State, Thorne may have multiple future NFL receivers at his disposal. Reed and Jalen Nailor are both deciding if they should enter the NFL Draft, and both showed in the Peach Bowl why they may be future pros. Reed was the Offensive MVP with six catches for 80 yards and two touchdowns, while Nailor had six catches for 108 yards. Nailor had a brilliant one-handed grab in the first half for big yardage, and Reed’s two touchdowns were simply the result of him winning one-on-one matchups. The fact that both played in the bowl game is obviously a good sign for MSU.
Tight end Connor Heyward is headed to the NFL, but the future at the position is still bright with freshman Maliq Carr, who showed plus athleticism with a nifty catch-and-run Thursday. And former four-star running back Jalen Berger is transferring in from Wisconsin after a disappointing freshman season. If he can get on track, MSU may have another strong weapon in the backfield.
Eight starters will return on defense, and Tucker will also look to add reinforcements via the transfer portal, especially in the secondary. MSU’s pass defense sagged in big moments in 2021 and will need to improve. But the unit essentially shut out Pitt in the second half and allowed the offense to win it in the end.
“Our adjustments (in the second half) just were to tackle better, drive on the ball better, break, just doing the little things better,” said Haladay, who collected the Defensive MVP Award for his pick-six and a team-leading 11 tackles. “That’s what we did at the end of the day. We just needed to go out, get the ball back to our offense as quickly as we could and give ourselves an opportunity to win the game.”
Ohio State isn’t going anywhere, Michigan hopes to have turned into the elite program it has always aspired to be and Penn State will never be down for long. Is there room for a fourth program near the top of a division that is on par with the SEC West as the nation’s toughest? Michigan State certainly thinks so.
“There’s a lot of hard work that needs to be done between now and when we kick off again next season,” Tucker said. “But we’re going to remain focused and determined to get where we need to go. And we play in a tough conference. It’s very rugged. It’s very competitive. But we’re in it. We’re in it to win it. And, so, I do believe that our best is ahead.”