No. 12 Pitt and No. 10 Michigan State faced off in the Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday night, and the tough luck piled up for the Panthers from the opening kickoff to the final whistle. As a result, the Panthers fell to the Spartans 31-21.
Pitt got off to a rough start, as the opening kickoff hit the goal line and bounced back out into the field of play. That forced Pitt return man Israel Abanikanda to go back for the ball and settle for limited yardage on the return after initially abandoning it in expectation of a touchback. And as a result, the Panthers started their first drive from their own two-yard line. That drive would stall out amid shaky play from Pitt quarterback Nick Patti, who put a little too much heat on his throws to Lucas Krull and Jordan Addison en route to a three-and-out.
The Spartans would capitalize on good field position on the subsequent drive, as Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne completed a 28-yard pass to Michigan State receiver Jayden Reed for a touchdown three plays into their first possession, giving them a 7-0 lead.
Things would come together for the Panthers on the following drive, as Patti appeared to settle down with his back no longer against the wall. That allowed him to complete a pass to Addison to get the ball rolling, and runs by Abanikanda and Vincent Davis built on that momentum. Eleven plays later, the Panthers found themselves in the red zone, where Patti put a perfect pass into Krull’s hands in the back of the end zone. However, the ball was tipped away, and on the next down, Patti ran the ball in himself from 16 yards out to tie the game at seven all.
Unfortunately, the score was costly for Patti, as he came down hard on his left shoulder at the end of the play and left the field to be attended to by Pitt’s medical staff. That would leave Davis Beville as Pitt’s next man up at quarterback, and after a Michigan State drive punctuated by a Matt Coghlin kick that made it 10-7, Beville would lead the Pitt offense out onto the field as Patti looked on from the Panthers’ sideline with his left arm in a sling.
Beville would fail to lead Pitt to the end zone on his first drive, and on the ensuing Michigan State possession, a missed kick by Coghlin alleviated some of the mounting pressure on the Panthers. A series of defensive stands would follow, with the lone disruption in the back-and-forth coming in the form of a pick by Pitt safety Brandon Hill with two minutes remaining in the half.
That turnover would breathe new life into the Panthers, and a more confident Beville took the field and quickly connected on a pass to Addison that went for 52 yards and landed Pitt in the red zone. Three plays later, Pitt would take the lead on a four-yard touchdown pass from Beville to Pitt receiver Jared Wayne, which made it 14-10, and that score would remain intact at halftime.
The second half got off to a much better start than the first for the Panthers, as Pitt defensive end John Morgan took down Thorne and forced a fumble in the process. The ball was then scooped up by Pitt linebacker Cam Bright who returned it 26 yards for a score to set the Panthers up with a more comfortable 21-10 lead early in the third quarter.
The defenses would continue to shine, as Pitt defensive back A.J. Woods pried the ball out of Michigan State receiver Jalen Nailor’s hands as he came down with it in the end zone, saving what looked sure to go down a Spartans touchdown. And moments later, Michigan State defensive tackle Jacob Slade took down Beville for a sack. That would prove to be a theme as the game wore on, as Michigan State’s Drew Beesley, Brandon Wright, Simeon Barrow and Jacub Panasiuk also got home, as did Pitt’s Bam Brima and Devin Danielson.
All the while, the offenses stagnated. However, the Spartans would come alive once again midway through the fourth quarter, when Thorne found Michigan State tight end Connor Heyward, the brother of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward, for a score. That would make it 21-16, and Michigan State would go for two but fail to convert.
That set up a tense finish, as the Pitt offense failed to get much accomplished, leaving Michigan State to control possession late in the game. The Spartans would then take shot after shot at a Pitt defense showing signs of fatigue, and with just under three minutes left to play, Thorne would find Reed on a 22-yard touchdown pass. Thorne would then link up with Nailor on a two-point conversion to give Michigan State a late 24-21 lead.
On the following drive, Addison would keep Pitt’s Peach Bowl hopes alive, as he reeled in a pass from Beville and lunged forward for a first down on a 4th-and-8. Beville then found him again for a 24-yard gain on the following play. But as the Panthers moved downfield, Beville’s play became more reckless.
That would work out at first, as he connected with a well-covered Krull for a first down. But Beville’s luck ran out with about 33 seconds left on the clock, as an underthrown pass intended for Addison found its way into the hands of Michigan State linebacker Cal Haladay for a pick-six. The touchdown put Michigan State up 31-21, and an onside kick recovered by the Spartans would deny the Panthers a shot at a last-minute rebuttal.
The loss denied Pitt its first victory in a New Year’s Six bowl game as well as what would have been its first win over Michigan State in a series that now includes eight games and dates back to 1945. It also brought an ACC championship season to the anticlimactic end that oddsmakers predicted following the decision of Pickett to forgo the game. Now, with the result in the books, Pitt will look to address the departures of Mark Whipple and Brennan Marion on its coaching staff and prepare for a new era, with Kedon Slovis set to replace Pickett under center in 2022.