Peach Bowl preview – Key players and matchups for Pittsburgh-Michigan State


If you’re a fan of points, this year’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl between Pitt and Michigan State is probably the game for you.

Pitt has averaged 43 points in 13 games this season, while Michigan State has averaged nearly 32 points in 12 games. Both teams feature players who were considered Heisman candidates throughout the season and future NFL draft picks in Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett and Spartans running back Kenneth Walker III.

Thanks in large part to those stars, both teams exceeded expectations in 2021 and will now try to put a bow on neatly packaged seasons. Pitt broke Clemson’s six-year streak as ACC champion with an 11-2 record, while Michigan State finished 10-2 after going 2-5 in a pandemic-shortened season in Mel Tucker’s first year as head coach.

No. 10 Michigan State Spartans vs. No. 12 Pittsburgh Panthers
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
When: Thursday, Dec. 30, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line from Caesars Sportsbook: Pitt -3.5

Key player for Pitt: The easy answer here is Pickett, but instead let’s focus on star receiver Jordan Addison. The Biletnikoff Award finalist blossomed as a sophomore in 2021, becoming the most prolific receiver in the ACC. He’s racked up 93 receptions for 1,479 yards, to go with 18 total touchdowns — putting him squarely in the conversation with Pitt legend Larry Fitzgerald as one of the most productive receivers in program history. Addison finished seven games with at least 100 yards and had five multiple-TD games. He’s a matchup nightmare for Michigan State, whose secondary has struggled badly against quality receivers, but even if the Spartans blanket Addison, Pitt has shown an ability to find Plan B targets for big gains.

Key player for Michigan State: Walker. Shocking, we know. But honestly, who else can you genuinely point to here that’s going to be more important than Walker? The Heisman candidate rushed for 1,646 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. In Michigan State’s other two big games this season, Walker’s performance essentially dictated the outcome. In the Spartans’ win against Michigan, Walker had 197 yards and five touchdowns. In their crushing loss against Ohio State, he had 25 yards and no touchdowns. The Spartans are going to go as far as Walker can take them, and he’ll be going up against a rush defense that is sixth in FBS.

Matchup to watch: Michigan State’s pass defense against Pickett. Michigan State has allowed 4,052 passing yards, the most in FBS, giving up an average of 337.7 per game. In his super senior season, Pickett emerged as a Heisman candidate and potentially the first quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL draft. The last time the Michigan State defense faced a Heisman candidate, C.J. Stroud completed 32 of 35 passes for 432 yards and six touchdowns for a QBR of 251.7. If Pickett’s greatest wish was to go out with an absolute bang, the Spartans’ pass defense should give him a great shot at that opportunity.

X factor: Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi made his name as the defensive coordinator at Michigan State, so the connection is obvious. It’s a matchup that would seem to be personal, but it will be interesting to see how the one-time Spartans coach reacts to that. Mark Dantonio, who led Michigan State to its last New Year’s Six game in 2015, has been a trusted confidant for Narduzzi throughout this season’s ACC championship run and has been on the sidelines for Pitt practices and in the press box on several game days. None of that necessarily means much in a matchup against Mel Tucker’s new-look Spartans, but it’s certainly a fitting reminder that this meeting has deep roots on both sides, and for Narduzzi and Pitt, it’s going to feel something like a family reunion, where it’s absolutely essential to prove how far you’ve come since you last saw each other.

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