Michigan State, Pittsburgh prepare for Peach Bowl without key players

Both teams are in town for the 2021 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl - without star players.

The No. 11 ranked Michigan State Spartans (10-2, 7-2, third in Big-10 East) and No. 13 ranked and ACC champion Pittsburgh Panthers (11-2, 7-1 in ACC) will be play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Thursday at 7 p.m.

Michigan State comes into the game under second-year head coach Mel Tucker. They will play without their star running back Kenneth Walker III who opted out for the NFL draft. Tucker knows it’s a big loss and that his team will have to find a way to make up for it.

“It’s hard to replace a guy like Ken,” Tucker said. “You really can’t do that. We have other players on our roster at that position that will step up and get the job done. We have a plan for that, and I feel good about our run game.”

Walker rushed for 1,636 yards on 263 carries while scoring eight touchdowns on the season. The next leading rushers who could see more opportunities in Thursday’s game are Jordon Simmons and Elijah Collins. The Spartans have rushed for 2,227 yards on the season.

On the other side, Pittsburgh comes into the game without their starting quarterback Kenny Pickett, who opted out of the bowl game for the NFL draft as well. Pickett led the Panthers to their first ACC title since joining the ACC in 2011. Pickett has thrown for 4,319 yards, 42 touchdowns while completing 67.2% of his passes (334-497).

Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi knows how much Pickett has meant to his team but believes in backup quarterback Nick Patti.

“Nick is a leader, works his tail off and is prepared,” Narduzzi said. “He’s been really good. Our players trust him more important and (believes) he will go out and play his best and get it done. Obviously, you would love to have Kenny but that’s not the reality. Our kids believe in Nick.”

Patti has completed 12 of 14 passes in six games played for 140 yards.

Along with not having Pickett, the Panthers will have an interim offensive coordinator in Tim Salem. Mark Whipple left to become offensive coordinator at Nebraska. Salem served as tight ends coach and offensive assistant coach.

“Anybody on our offense could do it but Tim Salem has been with me for seven years,” Narduzzi said. “Our players have a lot of trust in him. We’re going to do what we do offensively and we’re going to find out Thursday night how good it is.”

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