A good start and better finish were enough to lift Michigan State to a 31-21 victory over Pittsburgh in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The win, helped by 21 points scored in the fourth quarter, was the No. 10 Spartans’ 11th this season and their second victory in a New Year’s Six Bowl. It came in front of an announced attendance of 41,230. The defeat denied No. 12 Pittsburgh a chance to reach 12 wins for just the second time.

“We keep chopping,” said Mel Tucker, Michigan State’s coach and the former defensive coordinator at Georgia. “We know we can go deep into the fourth quarter, wear teams down and take them into the deep water.”

Michigan State was led by quarterback Payton Thorne, whose 22-yard touchdown pass to Jayden Reed, and subsequent 2-point conversion with 2:52 remaining, sealed the win. Thorne completed 29 of 50 passes for 354 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Reed caught six passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns. He was named the game’s offensive MVP.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Pittsburgh’s effort was hampered by the decision of its first-string quarterback, Kenny Pickett, not to participate in the game, and the loss of its second-string quarterback, Nick Patti, to a game-ending broken collarbone in the first quarter. The Panthers, who averaged 502.9 yards of offense in becoming ACC champs, finished with 274.

Both teams hoped to answer questions about their offenses. Could Patti adequately replace Pickett, who led the Panthers with more than 4,300 passing yards? The Panthers didn’t get a chance to see much of what Patti could do because he played just two series. The last ended with him tying the game at 7 with a touchdown run in the first quarter. He was replaced by redshirt sophomore Davis Beville, who went 14-of-18 for 149 yards with one touchdown and one costly interception returned for a long touchdown in the final seconds that provided the final margin of defeat.

“He did about as good as he could,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “It hurt when he (Patti) went down. Our kids hung in there. We had a chance to tie the ball game with a minute left.”

No matter the quarterback, Pittsburgh figured it could rely on its fearsome front seven, with 38 sacks and not allowing a 100-yard rusher this season, to stay in the game. The defense at one point held the Spartans scoreless for eight consecutive drives, but it couldn’t hold out forever.

The big question for Michigan State was whether Jordon Simmons and Harold Joiner could adequately replace Kenneth Walker, who rushed for more than 1,600 yards but also opted to skip the game to prepare for the draft? Even without Walker, Michigan State expected to use its veteran offensive line, with 212 combined starts, and steady hand of Thorne, to keep possession and keep moving.

Turns out, though shaky at times, Thorne did enough behind an offensive line that helped the Spartans grind out 410 yards.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Michigan State grabbed the first lead, 7-0, with Thorne lobbing a pass to favorite target Reed, who caught it in tight coverage at the 3-yard line near the right sideline and fell into the end zone with 13:11 remaining in the first quarter.

Pittsburgh answered with a 12-play drive that may have addressed any concerns supporters had in the early moments about Patti. His 16-yard touchdown run tied the game at 7 with 7:57 remaining. But the score came with a price: Patti could be seen grabbing his left shoulder and went to the locker room with a trainer after the drive and didn’t return to the game.

After the Spartans kicked a 36-yard field goal to take a 10-7 lead with 2:39 remaining, Pittsburgh took the field with its third-string quarterback Beville, who had attempted four passes this season.

With Beville having little success, the game still changed in Pittsburgh’s favor because of its defense, which stopped the Spartans from scoring on their next eight drives.

The third drive in that streak ended with Pittsburgh’s Brandon Hill intercepting Thorne to give his team possession on the 12 with 2:03 remaining in the half.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

His nerves perhaps settled, Beville completed consecutive passes to Jordan Addison, the first for 10 yards and the second for 52, to move the Panthers to the 13-yard line. Three plays later, Beville found Jared Wayne for a 4-yard touchdown to give the Panthers a surprising 14-10 lead. It was Beville’s first touchdown pass this season.

Another Thorne turnover, this time a fumble to start the second half, resulted in Pittsburgh increasing its lead to 21-10 with 14:40 remaining. Facing third-and-10, Thorne, evading the pass rush, ran up the middle for a yard until he was hit by John Morgan. The ball popped out and linebacker Cam Bright returned it 26 yards for the score.

Eschewing a 45-yard field goal, Michigan State went for it on fourth-and-13 at Pittsburgh’s 28 early in the third quarter. Thorne’s pass to Jalen Nailor in the corner of the end zone was broken up by cornerback A.J. Woods.

Michigan State 31, Pittsburgh 21

Still trailing by 11 early in the fourth quarter and its scoreless streak on the precipice of nine consecutive drives, Michigan State elected not to try a 42-yard field goal and again went for it on fourth down, this time needing six yards while on the 25-yard line. The Spartans were successful because Thorne hit Connor Heyward, a Peachtree Ridge High alum, for eight yards.

The gamble got a payoff. Five plays later, Thorne threw a beautiful 15-yard touchdown pass to Heyward to cut the Spartans’ deficit to five points with 8:06 remaining. The drive covered 70 yards in 13 plays. After a false-start penalty, Michigan State’s 2-point conversion attempt failed, leaving the Spartans trailing 21-16 but with some needed momentum on offense.

Michigan State’s defense forced its fourth consecutive scoreless drive, ending with Angelo Grose stopping Vincent Davis for a loss of 2 yards on third-and-1 at the 31-yard line. Beville said the play ran was what was called and there wasn’t a check that changed it.

Michigan State took over on its 29 with 5:37 remaining and continued to go with quick passes from a shotgun formation to negate Pittsburgh’s pass rush as it moved to the Panthers’ 35-yard line. There the drive stalled, partially because the Spartans tried longer passes. Each time, a Pittsburgh lineman or linebacker got close enough to Thorne to affect the throw. Facing third-and-10 with 3:06 remaining in the game, Thorne hit Nailor for 14 yards and followed that with the game-winning pass to Reed. The drive lasted 11 plays. Narduzzi said those long drives hurt his team.

“You hope your defense is going to stop them,” he said. “We just weren’t fresh enough. Didn’t make enough plays on defense to get off the field.”

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Michigan State closed the scoring with a 78-yard interception return by Cal Halladay after Beville led the Panthers to within the possibility of a game-tying field goal with five consecutive completions.

“This football team really laid it on the line and gave it everything they had,” Tucker said.