Michigan Football Faces Huge Challenge In Ohio States Trio Of Star Receivers

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Michigan State's Mel Tucker: 'It's hard to replace' Kenneth Walker IIICoach Mel Tucker updated Michigan State football's roster situation for the Peach Bowl, including being without running back Kenneth Walker III.Provided by the Peach Bowl

What initially appeared to be the toughest test for Michigan State> football’s problematic secondary this season transformed into an entirely different type of challenge.

Figuring out who is Nick Patti.

He is the Pitt quarterback who will replace Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett when the 10th-ranked Spartans face the 12th-ranked Panthers in Thursday’s Peach Bowl.

“We don't have as much film as we do with Kenny Pickett, but we're going to treat him like he's a great quarterback,” safety Darius Snow said Monday morning before MSU’s practice in Atlanta. “Nick Patti’s his name. He’s a redshirt junior. He’s actually from the same state as Mr. Pickett. And we're going to assume that he's the best quarterback we've ever played. That's just how we approach every single game.”

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Kickoff between MSU (10-2) and Pitt (11-2) is 7 p.m. from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The game will be televised by ESPN.

One of the top-tier New Year’s Six bowl games lost a lot of its star power when Pickett as well as highly decorated Spartans running back Kenneth Walker III each opted out to begin preparation for the NFL draft, which will be held in April. Both were finalists for the Maxwell Award that goes to the nation’s best player, and Walker beat out Pickett for the Walter Camp national player of the year award.

Without Pickett, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi will turn the ball over to Patti, and Snow’s quick synopsis comes as good intel.

Patti, 6 feet 3, 220 pounds, is a former three-star recruit from Hillsdale, New Jersey and St. Joseph Regional High. He took a limited amount of snaps in eight games this season, completing 12 of 14 passes for 140 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Patti also ran for a 9-yard score on his only carry, back in the Panthers' opener against Massachusetts.

Though he played in just two games in 2020, running for two touchdowns and completing 2 of 5 passes, Patti made one career start in 2019 against Delaware as a redshirt freshman. That season, in which he played six games and was 26-for-43 for 301 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, provides the bulk of his collegiate game tape.

Patti’s career numbers pale in comparison to Pickett’s tremendous season. The senior won ACC Player of the Year and guided Pitt to its first conference title while breaking Dan Marino’s school record with an ACC-record 42 touchdown passes that ranked third in the Football Bowl Subdivision during the regular season. Pickett was fifth in the nation with 4,319 passing yards, helping the Panthers’ offense rank fifth in FBS at 502.9 yards per game and third in scoring at 43.0 points.

Still, MSU defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton said he sees plenty of similarities between the quarterback he’ll face in Patti and the one his defense will miss in Pickett.

“He's a decent-sized guy, moves around similar,” Hazleton said. “He still breaks — we try to work to find his scrambling patterns, to see what he does and how he moves around in the pocket and stuff like that. It was good. He's got some time in the games this year, too, and he throws a good ball and has a strong arm. And so we're really excited about playing him and see how it works.

“But it was a real deal to be able to say, OK, who is this guy?”

Safety Xavier Henderson said the Spartans watched plenty of film with Pickett before he opted out to dissect the scheme and formations Pitt uses. He said that will help in preparing for Patti, but he also planned to digest some of the former backup’s older game footage to try and dig a little deeper on his tendencies.

“You're preparing for the scheme, then you also prepare for the players and what they like to do,” Henderson said. “And so you just kind of have to take note of what the new guy can do and compare. … You just got to study what the other quarterback can do.

“(Patti) has got some talent, it's just the limited reps. But we know he will be talented. He's an older guy, too, so he knows the scheme, he knows the system.”

Patti said his limited game tape could end up being a benefit for the Panthers.

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

Patti still has Jordan Addison to whom he can throw the ball. The sophomore wide receiver won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver, leading the country with 17 touchdowns among his 93 catches for 1,479 yards.

Addison joins a long list of top receivers MSU has faced this year, along with Ohio State’s big-play trio, Purdue’s David Bell, Western Kentucky’s Jerreth Stearns and Penn State’s Jahan Dotson. Four of those players rank in the top 15 in receiving yards nationally, with Addison third this season, having the second-best season in Pitt history, behind only Larry Fitzgerald’s 1,672 yards in 2003.

“He's just really smooth with his route-running,” Henderson said of the 6-foot, 175-pound Addison. “I'm sure he's fast — I know he'll be fast when we get out there — but it doesn't look like he needs to run too hard. I mean, he looks smooth. … And he goes and attacks the ball pretty well.”

Facing Patti instead of Pickett is somewhat of a respite for the Spartans’ secondary, which struggled all season and ranks last among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in allowing 337.7 passing yards per game and 84th in passing efficiency defense (138.88). MSU also ranked 126th in the regular season with 304 first downs allowed, 186 of those coming through the air, and have given up 26 of its 35 opponents’ touchdowns through the air.

The last five opposing quarterbacks the Spartans have faced each passed for more than 300 yards, with their defense allowing an average of 410.8 yards and yielding 17 TD passes to just three interceptions in those games. That included 968 yards combined for Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud in their two losses.

MSU played without freshman Chuck Brantley in the final three games after aggravating a shoulder injury against Purdue and had cornerbacks Brantley, Ronald Williams II and Marqui Lowery all playing hurt down the stretch. The same goes for Henderson, who sat out the second half of a blowout loss to Ohio State and pushed through the pain in the win over Penn State in the finale.

But those late limitations only added to issues that existed all season.

The Spartans hope to be as close to healthy as they’ve been thanks to the month off since the Nov. 27 win over Penn State.

“When you play this game, obviously it's hard to be at 100% near the end, but that's why I think this break has helped a lot,” Snow said. “It's helped us get healthier as a group — not just in the secondary, just entirely as a team. But at the end of the day, even when you're hurt and you're limited and things like that, it's all about the mentals. It's all about the mentals. Things can physically hurt but if you force yourself with will power, and you play as hard as you can, you can work through stuff.”

Contact Chris Solari: [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

Source : https://www.freep.com/story/sports/college/michigan-state/spartans/2021/12/27/michigan-state-football-peach-bowl-pitt-panthers-pass-defense-quarterback-nick-patti/9028517002/

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