Payton Thorne starts 'slinging it,' Michigan State rallies past Pitt to win Peach Bowl
Atlanta — Mel Tucker often talks about his team playing its best when it matters most.
On Thursday night as No. 10 Michigan State found itself down 11 points to No. 12 Pittsburgh entering the fourth quarter, it was time for the Spartans to prove to their coach that they were up to the task.
Behind a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Payton Thorne and a late interception returned for a touchdown by linebacker Cal Haladay, the Spartans scored 21 points in the final quarter to rally for a 31-21 victory over the Panthers in front of 41,230 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
BOX SCORE: Michigan State 31, Pittsburgh 21
“It was a great victory for us,” Tucker said. “I’m really proud of our guys and our seniors. Our fans were incredible. They traveled, they were deep and they really helped pull us through. And so I know there's going to be a lot of partying in Spartan Nation tonight and it was just a great experience.”
It capped off a remarkable season — Michigan State won 11 games for the sixth time in program history — and an even more remarkable night as the Spartans’ offense was stuck in the mud for most of the game while the defense made play after play to keep the Spartans in it.
Thorne struggled for long periods, but some second-half adjustments helped him rein things in and finish 29-for-50 for a career-high 354 yards with three touchdown passes, just enough to make up for his interception that led to a first-half Pittsburgh touchdown and a third-quarter fumble that was returned for a score.
“We kept communicating and he said that he was missing some throws and he wasn't accurate,” Tucker recalled. “I asked him why and he told me it was his footwork and that he was really just not delivering the ball the way he normally does. I told him, ‘Well, get your feet right, fix your footwork and cut it loose. Just start slinging it.’ He went out and he did that.
“Payton showed a level of maturity and resiliency that — and I told him after the game, I said, ‘You know, what you did was really hard to do.’ And I told him I was proud of him and it was a great experience and the best is ahead for him.”
More: Watch: Highlights from Michigan State-Pitt in the Peach Bowl
Without running back Kenneth Walker III, it helped to have Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor to throw the ball to. Reed was the game’s offensive MVP, catching six passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns, including a 22-yarder from Thorne with 2:51 to play that gave the Spartans the lead for good.
Nailor had six receptions for 108 yards in his first game since injuring his hand in the win over Michigan in late October. The duo helped Michigan State (11-2) gain 410 yards and get the best of a Pitt defense that limited the Spartans to just 56 rushing yards.
“I look back to our bowl preparation and I feel I was in great rhythm with him,” Thorne said of Nailor. “I was hitting him on the deep balls. The timing was right and tonight he played well and I wasn't putting it on him for the second, third quarter. … But he did his thing and I was telling him on the sideline I'd figure it out at some point. In fourth quarter, he made a couple of key catches, and he's a guy that you can rely on and it was great for him.”
And with the offense finally untracked late, it was Haladay’s play that put the game away as he intercepted a pass and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown with 22 seconds to play.
“In my mind I was just thinking I'm probably going to get yelled at a little bit because I'm supposed to go down in that situation,” said Haladay, the game’s defensive MVP. “But I couldn't do it. I couldn't pass up the opportunity in my head. … there was nothing in front of me and I just had to keep going. And I was nervous someone was going to catch me from behind.”
Nobody did, and Michigan State has locked up the win, beating the Atlantic Coast Conference champion, the second conference champ the Spartans have knocked off this season.
“The effort was there tonight and there was an element of competitive greatness and that's being at your best when your best is needed,” Tucker said. “That’s what we've seen this season, the several games guys have made plays down the stretch to ice games, because there's something to be said for that. We do have pride in our program. We do have pride in our defense. We're not where we need to be, but we're going to get there.”
Pittsburgh (11-3) entered the game without Heisman finalist quarterback Kenny Pickett and lost backup Nick Patti after he injured his shoulder on a first-quarter touchdown run, giving way to third string Davis Beville. The Panthers offense didn’t do much most of the game, but the defense was outstanding, scoring a touchdown of its own on a scoop and score fumble return for a score.
Beville did what he could, but in the end his interception killed the Panthers, who got 114 yards on seven receptions from wide receiver Jordan Addison.
“Obviously not the way we wanted to finish up the season,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “It's never easy. Kids played their tails off. Didn't give up at all. I think when most people thought with a third-string quarterback we weren't going to be able to take it down the field, we did. It comes down to the details.
“You throw a pick in the red zone when you got a chance to at least tie it up, go overtime, you just got to protect the ball, make better decisions. It hurt obviously when Nick Patti went down. Had a nice touchdown scramble for a touchdown, but not the way you wanted your seniors to go out.”
Michigan State controlled much of the first half, yet thanks to a handful of mistakes, the Spartans managed to trail, 14-10, at halftime despite scoring less than two minutes into the game and knocking the Panthers’ quarterback out, forcing Pitt to turn to a third-string signal caller.
The Spartans were rolling early after the Panthers mishandled the opening kickoff and started at their 2. Michigan State forced a three-and-out and after Reed returned the punt to the Pitt 29, it took three plays for the Spartans to find the end zone when Thorne connected with Reed for a 28-yard scoring strike on third down.
Pitt responded in impressive fashion, marching 75 yards on 12 plays for a drive that took more than five minutes off the clock and featured plenty of running against the Michigan State defense. It included a pair of third-down conversions, including the final play when Patti scrambled for 16 yards and dove to the pylon for a touchdown that tied the score at 7. But it came at a price as Patti suffered a broken collarbone on the play.
From there, the mistakes started to pile up for the Spartans. They moved into the red zone on their next drive, but a false start penalty pushed the Spartans back and forced a 36-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin to give MSU a 10-7 lead. After forcing a punt on Pitt’s next drive, the Spartans got to the Panthers 5 but failed to come away with points after another false start call and a missed 33-yard field-goal attempt from Coghlin.
Michigan State had another chance late in the half, but Thorne threw an interception inside the Pitt 20 with just more than two minutes to play. And after punting on its three previous drives, the Panthers got a 52-yard pass from Beville to Addison and then took the lead when Beville hit Jared Wayne for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 1:02 left in the half.
“It's a four-quarter game,” Tucker said. “You have to continue to always play the next play. Just keep chopping, just keep going. … You don't look at a scoreboard. You just keep playing the next play with extreme effort and extreme toughness.”
That toughness was still missing to open the second half when Thorne threw behind Nailor on the opening play, one that would have been a huge gain. After another incomplete pass, Thorne scrambled and fumbled when he was hit. The ball was scooped up by Pitt’s Cam Bright, who returned it 26 yards for a touchdown and a 21-10 lead for the Panthers only 20 seconds into the second half. Michigan State could get nothing going offensively in the third quarter and couldn’t take advantage of fake punt that picked up a first down followed later by another fourth-down conversion.
Of course, it was all setting up the fourth-quarter rally.
“The whole game my teammates just kept telling me to stay up and really just keep chopping,” Thorne said. “That's what we talk about, and we really say that on the sideline. The coaches, same thing. I even heard fans saying that from the sideline.
“Sometimes when you're playing like I was playing, fans are going to start to boo you, and that's warranted. I'm not saying that fans shouldn't do that. But they didn't. They really didn't, and they kept saying, ‘We believe in you,’ stuff like that. I heard that from the crowd.”
And Thorne delivered, leading a 13-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Connor Heyward and then the winner to Reed in the final minutes.
“Keep chopping,” Heyward said. “Back's against the wall, you've got to be able to make a play.”
Michigan State did that in the Peach Bowl, and it now heads into 2022 with high hopes.