Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Two tough teams, minus stars, ready to compete

Before the gravitational pull of the NFL draft, Thursday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl had the potential to be one of the more high-scoring games in the postseason.

Now, with the absences of No. 10 Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker, who flattened Big Ten defenses for more than 1,600 yards, and No. 12 Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett, who led the Panthers to the ACC title with more than 4,300 passing yards, it’s unclear what kind of game the expected crowd of more than 70,000 will see.

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi and Michigan State coach Mel Tucker on Wednesday provided some insight into what they expect to see at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“As I told our guys, it’s going to be a four quarters,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t think it’s going to be over in two or three. We’re going to have to be relentless in our pursuit to get a victory. I think it’s gonna be two teams that believe in their coaches, they believe in their culture, they believe in their teammates. And again, I see this game going down to the wire.”

Tucker said, “It’s gonna be hard-nosed physical football game. Players playing with tremendous mental and physical toughness. Great effort, extreme effort, coaches coaching hard and teams that are in great condition and ready to play. Four quarters, 60 minutes in the game, and both teams plan to win.”

There is history at stake for both programs.

Pittsburgh has a chance to earn a 12th win for the second time in its history. The first came under coach Johnny Majors with running back Tony Dorsett in 1976, when the Panthers capped their season defeating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

Narduzzi said if the players aren’t aware of the possibility then they’ve missed the messages.

“It can set a legacy,” Narduzzi said. “That’s the goal. Our guys are locked in.”

The Spartans have a chance to reach 11 wins for the sixth time and to win a New Year’s Six bowl for the second time.

“Our team has been very focused,” Tucker said. “Our staff has done a tremendous job of preparation. I’ve been really impressed with how they’ve embraced this opportunity.”

Both teams will be relying on relatively unproven players to try to reach the goal.

Nick Patti, who has completed 12 of 14 passes for 140 yards -- more than two miles less in completions than Pickett -- is expected to start for the Panthers.

Narduzzi said the team expects the Spartans to try to stop the run first, so they will have to be able to complete passes. In their favor is that Michigan State has one of the worst pass defenses in FBS, allowing 337.7 yards per game.

“I think just the reps I’ve got in practice and being able to watch Kenny is a good advantage as well,” Patti said. “So I guess there’s somewhat of the element of surprise. But I’m just ready to go with whatever they throw at us.”

Another advantage for Patti is the Panthers’ outstanding defensive front. They rank second in FBS with 51 sacks in 13 games. Because of that aggressive pressure, they rank sixth in FBS with 91.8 rushing yards allowed per game, but 105th with 257.4 passing yards allowed per game.

“We are going to have to do a great job being coordinated with pass protection, run game and play action,” Tucker said. “One of the best fronts in the country and one of the best fronts we’ve played all season.”

That challenge may be more difficult with the absence of Walker. In his place could be McEachern High graduate Jordon Simmons, who rushed for 260 yards.

Or Tucker may mix it up and allow quarterback Payton Thorne and tight end Connor Heyward, a Peachtree Ridge High alum and son of former Pitt great Craig Heyward, to try to play ball control and dominate the clock.

“It’s a big game,” Heyward said. “It means a lot. Obviously myself and the seniors want to go out in the right way. I think we’ve had a pretty successful season. And winning a New Year’s Six bowl would make the season that much better. This is an opportunity of a lifetime for us. And we’re all just going to seize the moment. Payton Thorne had a good point after practice: Why not ... have momentum going into next year and for the seniors, go out with a bang?”

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