the michigan state spartans return to east lansing from atlanta as peach bowl champions. In Mel Tucker’s second season, and the entire first season, the Spartans reached 11 wins, which is only the sixth time in the show’s history that MSU has accomplished that feat. It’s been an incredible season for Michigan State, capped off with a six New Year’s bowl win over the Pittsburgh Panthers. A game-sealing pick-six by Cal Haladay gave the Spartans a 31-21 win over Pitt.
the peach bowl was not the prettiest game. quarterback payton thorne looked a little out of place throughout the game, missing some easy shots and failing to hit some of the deep shots he’s been so good at all season. The running game without Kenneth Walker III was stagnant at times, and will need an offseason overhaul (Wisconsin transfer running back Jalen Beger enters the program in 2022) if the Spartans want to continue their success in 2022.
but a win is a win. Let’s dive into some takeaways from victory.
the spartans clearly missed kenneth walker iii, perhaps more than initially thought
one of the biggest takeaways from watching the game was that the spartans really missed running back kenneth walker iii. His immediate playmaking ability and home run threat made the Spartans a truly dangerous offense this season. This isn’t really surprising or much of a revelation, given that Walker is a generational talent, but the Spartans just couldn’t move the ball on the ground against a tough Pittsburgh defense. MSU fans got their first look at what the upcoming season will look like without him on Thursday night. running back jordon simmons stepped in as the starter and had most of the spartans’ carries, with a few sightings of harold joiner and Elijah collins as well.
the spartans put together some good runs later in the game, but not before a very slow start to the running game. msu finished with 56 yards on 36 carries, which, well, isn’t great (1.6 yards per carry). If the Spartans want to build on their success through 2022, having a reliable running game will go a long way. The good news is that they have a whole offseason to figure it out, and reinforcements on the way with Berger’s arrival.
despite initial struggles, payton thorne finally put the team on his shoulders and won this game for the spartans
Don’t get me wrong: Payton Thorne hasn’t been the reason the Spartans lost games this season. He nearly led the Spartans to a comeback against Purdue earlier this year. he’s had some mistakes and growing pains along the way in his first year as a starter, sure, but he’s made up for it with some of the game-winning pitches he’s thrown, and the calm and poise he’s shown in games. closed. But, the Spartans have generally relied on Walker to get them out of bad situations. that was not the case on Thursday. In Walker’s absence, the Spartans needed Thorne to deliver and be the quarterback that could win them a game.
for most of the peach bowl, thorne was out of the game. he was missing pitches that should be routine, he wasn’t ready, and it seemed like pitt had gotten into his head. Around the five-minute mark of the third quarter, it looked like the Spartan offense had used up all its fuel, and that maybe MSU really needed Walker to win these games.
but then something clicked for thorne. After the defense got a key stop, Thorne led the offense down the field and connected with Connor Heyward for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 20-16. the Spartans were back.
then the spartans had the ball late in the fourth quarter and needed a touchdown to win the game. Again, Thorne led the Spartans down the field and this time he threw a ball to Jayden Reed for a touchdown and the go-ahead. It was one of the few times this season that the Spartans had to rely on Thorne to deliver at a critical moment, and he did. With an offseason to prepare for life without Walker, I hope he comes out and is the quarterback the Spartans need him to be in 2022. Thorne also set a Michigan State Program record for touchdown passes in a season in 2021 with 27 .
connor heyward has come full circle
one of the biggest surprises for me this season has been the recovery of connor heyward. Just a couple of years ago, she entered the transfer portal, before eventually returning to Michigan State and playing for Mel Tucker. He never really found his footing as a running back, but this season the switch to tight end/h-back was monumental for him.
He’s been a great blocker in the running game this year, but he still has the hands to run routes and be a serious threat in the passing game. he is also not afraid of contact or fighting for more yards: he will run you over. his strength and competitiveness were evident in his touchdown catch in the peach bowl, where he hung on after taking a big hit, as well as escaping a tough tackle for a first down at a different point in the game. it’s really nice to see him find success after all these years, and i really think he’ll find his way onto an nfl roster soon after the season he’s had. Heyward will play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl in February.
There’s a lot of work to be done in the offseason, but the spartans are in great shape for the future, and Thursday’s comeback win over pitt proved it. Michigan State never backed down, even when it would have been easy to throw in the towel. while losing walker and others is a huge blow, if the spartans can fix the issues we saw on thursday and throughout the season, msu will be fine going forward.