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2021 Peach Bowl Preview: Michigan State-Pitt

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How the opt-outs of Kenny Pickett and Kenneth Walker III change the Peach Bowl to favor Michigan State over its old defensive coordinator.

Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Maybe it’s residual satisfaction that the holidays went off without any problems, maybe it’s the photogenic snowflakes fluttering to ground here in metro Detroit that I’ll leave behind for a quick trip to 70-degree weather, or maybe it was my team’s surprisingly satisfying team on the field, but I’m feeling good. You feeling good, Off Tackle Imperials? I could just...well, I’ll spare you breaking out in song, but I’m at least going to whistle, haha.

Oh, look, a graveyard.

WHO: Michigan State Spartans (SBNation blog here), transitive Big Ten Champions, lone vanquishers of Meatchicken, reclaimers of Old Spitty and George Perles’ Bowling Trophy alike, versus the ACC Champion Pittsburgh Panthers (SBNation blog here).

WHAT: It—the Peach Bowl, man. You had to have clicked on the article, you didn’t see that?

WHEN: Ostensibly 7:00 pm EST, Thursday, December 30, 2021

WHERE: The Mercedes-Benz Grounded Spaceship In The Middle Of Atlanta

WHY: Michigan State is here as an at-large at 10-2 in a strong Big Ten, who sent its champion to the Playoff and Ohio State to the Rose Bowl even though they don’t give a shit. Pitt is here as the ACC’s auto-bid to the NY6, though their 11-2 record likely would have done it anyway (although, y’know, the ACCCG was that 11th win, so).

HOW: Instead of repeating Ben’s bit, I’ll just say ESPN. Game’s on ESPN. And it’s New Years’ Eve Eve, the deepest vortex of the Betwixt Christmas And New Year Null Zone, you ain’t doing anything else.

WHAT TO EXPECT: Hard to say, since we’ll start with the disappointing news: Michigan State’s Doak Walker-winning RB Kenneth Walker III opted out to begin draft prep, and Pitt’s Heisman finalist QB Kenny Pickett did the same. Two other Pittsburghers, WR Taysir Mack and starting CB Damarri Mathis, are also sitting; as of this writing, Walker is MSU’s only opt-out.

Vegas seems to view Pickett’s withdrawal as having the bigger impact. Before his announcement, lines as high as Pitt -4 could be found, but most books have crossed the bridge and now have MSU giving points.

Pickett’s absence is a big loss, no question, but this was still a top-21 team by both OF+ and DF+. They run it well enough to balance the offense with a capable trio of backs (Israel Abanikanda, Vincent Davis, and Rodney Hammond), but the undisputed star of the show is Biletnikoff-winning WR Jordan Addison.

The true sophomore piled an eye-popping 93/1,479/17 line, and so the interesting angle is to what extent working with a backup QB takes the edge off of him, if at all. Without Pickett, Pitt turns to barely-used backup Nick Patti, who has thrown 62 passes over his three collegiate seasons.

This is also a Michigan State pass defense that has been incinerated by QBs as diverse as Bailey Zappe, Aidan O’Connell, and CJ Stroud (very understandable!) to Sean Clifford and Taulia Tagovailoa (ehh, ok?) to Hunter Johnson (not great, Bob!). You’d be surprised by the Pickett-led Pitt offense’s overall play-calling splits, but they helped themselves to a couple of sugary sweet cupcakes that involved a wide margins for long periods, and Pickett had almost 100 totes himself between scrambles and sacks. Actual game mode, they’re much more balanced than their reputation or the raw numbers suggest.

When MSU has the ball, it will likely be tough sledding running the ball, as Pitt posted the 6th-best rushing defense in the country. They likewise have a deep and varied pass rush, as ten (!) guys managed at least two sacks, led by former swiped-from-MSU DE Habakkuk Baldonado, reportedly the first Italian player in FBS football. Nonetheless, even accounting for the ACC’s string of potent offenses this year, there have been some gaudy numbers posted by opposing offenses on this defense.

The Spartans may also have a full deck on offense outside of Walker, and WRs Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are finally both healthy and active. Even LT Jarrett Horst is now at least questionable, great news given it did not sound like he was returning this season. There are also signs that TE Maliq Carr is on the verge of a breakout. K9’s homerun menace will be badly missed, but the Spartan offense isn’t powerless without him.

Finally, we haven’t even gotten to the Most Interesting Angle, which is that Pitt’s head coach is former Michigan State DC Pat Narduzzi, stolen away by Pitt after the 2014 season! So...is there...beef??? Is there a desire for revenge, or to stick it to him for leaving?

No, that would be dumb. Narduzzi was a vital cog in Michigan State’s most beloved teams of the Dantonio era, running the team’s stronger unit and helping secure two Big Ten titles, a Cotton Bowl, and the Rose Bowl. He had absolutely earned a shot as an HC, and it’s good to see that after a very meh first several years, he got his breakthrough season that should keep him there the rest of his career.

But Thursday, he’s gotta lose. Sorry Nard-dawg, but them’s the rules. I choose to believe Michigan State’s coaching staff has figured something out with this pass defense given a month to work and to get injured guys back, that a minimally-seasoned backup QB won’t be ready for a stage like this, and that we get one of Payton Thorne’s more efficient games of the season in an entertaining win.

Poll

The Butt Emoji Bowl will be...

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    A Michigan State romp
    (23 votes)
  • 60%
    Michigan State in a nailbiter
    (67 votes)
  • 14%
    Pitt, close
    (16 votes)
  • 3%
    Nard-dawgs by a ton
    (4 votes)
110 votes total Vote Now