Michigan State football's Kenneth Walker III, Pitt's Kenny Pickett add Peach Bowl pizzazz

·5 min read

Mel Tucker knows Michigan State football’s secondary — one of the nation’s worst — will face one of its biggest challenges of the season in the Peach Bowl 2021: Slowing down quarterback Kenny Pickett and Pitt’s prolific passing attack.

“I know we're going to have to do a much better job on our pass defense,” Tucker said Sunday. “We've got to tighten up some areas. We've got to get some guys back healthy in order to be able to have a chance to contain him and slow him down.”

Pat Narduzzi knows his Panthers have a similar test ahead: Stopping Spartans running back Kenneth Walker III. Even though his run defense is one of the best in the country.

“We haven't played Kenneth Walker yet,” the Pitt coach said.

[ Why one seismic week validated Michigan State's big check for Mel Tucker ]

Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett looks to pass against Western Michigan at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Sept. 18, 2021. WMU won, 44-41.
Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett looks to pass against Western Michigan at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Sept. 18, 2021. WMU won, 44-41.

The two Maxwell Award and Walker Camp Award finalists, who also have been in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy all season may not go up against each other, but their offenses will be the centerpieces to watch when Walker and No. 10 MSU faces Pickett and No. 12 Pitt.

Though either could opt out of the postseason game before the Dec. 30 game in Atlanta (7 p.m., ESPN), both have expressed their intentions to play — Walker after the Spartans’ 30-27 win over Penn State on Nov. 27 and Pickett after Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.

Both Tucker and MSU quarterback Payton Thorne said Sunday they believe Walker will keep that promise.

“I haven't heard from any of the guys that they've decided not to play,” Tucker said. “At this point I'm assuming everyone is going to play, but if something changes, I will certainly make sure everyone knows that.”

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The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Pickett won ACC Player of the Year and guided the Panthers (11-2) to their first league title Saturday, a 45-21 blowout of No. 19 Wake Forest in Charlotte, North Carolina. Pickett went 20-for-33 for 253 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, breaking Dan Marino’s school record with an ACC-record 42 touchdown passes. He also scored on a 58-yard run, utilizing a fake slide to fool stunned defenders.

Yet that proved to be one of the redshirt senior from New Jersey’s least prolific games of the season. Pickett threw for a school record 519 yards against Miami, going 39-for-55 with three touchdowns and two interceptions. He eclipsed 400 yards against North Carolina State (416, three TDs) and New Hampshire (403, five TDs) and topped 300 yards five other times this season.

Pickett ranks third in the nation this season in touchdown passes and fifth at both 357.2 yards per game passing and 4,319 passing yards. Pitt’s offense ranks fifth in FBS at 502.9 yards per game and third in scoring at 43 points. He also is a finalist for the Manning, Davey O’Brien and Johnny Unitas awards that go to top college quarterbacks.

“He definitely can put the ball where it needs to be. He's shown that all year,” MSU safety Xavier Henderson said. “He's got some pretty good numbers. So we'll just have to really keep working fundamentals and technique.”

QB Kenny Pickett and head coach Pat Narduzzi celebrate their win against Wake Forest in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game Saturday.
QB Kenny Pickett and head coach Pat Narduzzi celebrate their win against Wake Forest in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game Saturday.

The Spartans have battled injuries, inconsistency and issues in coverage all season. They have allowed 26 of their 35 opponents’ touchdowns through the air and rank last in the country among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in allowing 337.7 passing yards per game and 84th in passing efficiency defense (138.88). MSU ranks 126th with 304 first downs allowed, 186 coming through the air.

The last five opposing quarterbacks Tucker’s team has faced each passed for more than 300 yards, including 536 for Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell and 432 for Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud in the Spartans’ two losses.

“We got to be better — not only the secondary, but the linebackers as well,” Henderson said. “We have to better in playing zone coverage and kind of melding with the quarterback. And then when the quarterback's looking and he's going through his progressions, we gotta do a good job of staying in our zone and melding up the quarterback. I think that's something we struggled with throughout the year.”

The Spartans have their own offensive weapon, however, with Walker.

Michigan State Spartans running back Kenneth Walker III runs by Maryland Terrapins linebacker Ahmad McCullough during the first half Nov. 13, 2021 at Spartan Stadium.
Michigan State Spartans running back Kenneth Walker III runs by Maryland Terrapins linebacker Ahmad McCullough during the first half Nov. 13, 2021 at Spartan Stadium.

The 5-10, 210-pound junior from Arlington, Tennessee, was named Big Ten running back of the year and first-team all-conference last week, and is a finalist for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best at his position. He ranks second in the country with both 1,636 rushing yards and a 136.3 yards-per-game average, and his 18 rushing touchdowns rank eighth in the nation.

MSU ranks 41st in total offense at 430.9 yards — 185.6 on the ground (42nd) and 245.3 passing (56th) and is tied for 39th at 31.9 points a game.

Narduzzi’s run defense ranks sixth in allowing 91.8 rushing yards. Pitt held Syracuse's Sean Tucker, who ranks fourth in the country in rushing, to 29 yards on 13 carries in a 31-14 road win on Nov. 27.

However, Narduzzi was quick to caution Walker presents a different challenge.

“He's a great running back,” Narduzzi said. “He can run. He's fast. … We know what kind of athlete he is. It'll be a big challenge, and just because you stop one at Syracuse doesn't mean you can stop one at Michigan State. It'll take a lot of work.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: MSU's Kenneth Walker III, Pitt's Kenny Pickett add Peach Bowl pizzazz

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