The final 20 plays from my 2021 Michigan State football series has arrived. Today, Connor Heyward’s final touchdown as a Spartan is highlighted.
Welcome back to day 31 in my 50 day Michigan State football series. Today marks the start of the top 20 defining moments of last year’s campaign, and this moment is made possible by one of the biggest breakout stars from last season, Connor Heyward.
No. 20: Connor Heyward’s 15-yard TD reception vs. Pitt
Why No. 20?
If someone told me that Connor Heyward would have been a breakout star after the 2020 season, I would have laughed or asked for which MAC school. If they then told me he would be a draft pick, I’d ask them to never tell me their lottery numbers. Now, a year later, Heyward was drafted into the NFL after his breakout season at tight end.
The converted running back was the frequent lightning rod to criticism in his first few years at Michigan State. Many fans called for him to be moved to fullback or tight end due to his strength and lack of top end speed. When the 2021 campaign started with Kenneth Walker at running back and Heyward playing that H-back role, we breathed a sigh of relief. Little did we know how much of a show Heyward would put on for us his senior year.
One of his best games of the season came in his last collegiate game, against Pitt. Heyward caught a touchdown to bring the Michigan State football faithful back into the game after he converted a fourth down in his only rush of the season on a fake punt earlier in the drive.
I was a Heyward nay-sayer headed into the campaign, and after the year he had, I was sad to hear he declared for the draft. I’d like to take this moment to apologize to Heyward and admit I was wrong.
As this is the only Heyward moment in my 50 defining moments, he got an extended introduction. Now, for the fun part: breaking down this play and how it slots into my top 20.
On this play, the Spartans had driven down the field but were facing an awful situation: third-and-goal on the Pitt 15. Jay Johnson dialed up the same thing anyone with a copy of NCAA 14 has done when facing a similar situation, which would be calling multiple vertical routes. Defensive guru Pat Narduzzi did not expect this, and Payton Thorne threw a perfect pass to Heyward. Maybe if Kenny Pickett was on the field, they would have expected this play call.
To complete the play, Heyward absorbed the contact from a charging Pitt defender and popped up with a touchdown.
To begin, I would like to ask what the Panthers secondary was thinking. On an obvious pass situation, the Pitt secondary was not nearly spread to where they should have been. Pitt rushed four players on this play and did not cover the end zone well when up by 11 (with the opposing team having an injured kicker), which was a very head scratching call. Regardless, Thorne threw the ball to the top shelf for Heyward, who went up and grabbed it.
Thorne threw an excellent ball here. He throws the ball just out of reach of the trailing Pitt player, who just barely missed tipping the ball. Additionally, it was thrown with enough speed and positioning to give Heyward time to firmly grab the ball before any contact was made.
Speaking of Heyward, major credit for his effort here. He looks the ball in and absorbs a hard hit, instantly popping up after falling to the ground. The ball was not jostled free by the hit or the ground, which is impressive considering that the fall to the ground actually injured the Pitt defender who initiated contact.
This play was the spark the Spartans needed, and their first offensive sign of life since the first quarter. From this play on, Michigan State football would score the final 21 points of the game to put away Pat’s poor Pickett-less Panthers.
Heyward’s fourth down rush also deserves a shout out. I did not include this moment in my list since I was planning on a longer article for this Heyward touchdown, as well as the moment occurring when the Spartans were still down two possessions. Without that play, Heyward does not get this opportunity, I know, but there were so many moments to choose from. In hindsight, I should have tried to include this earlier in the series. Hopefully this paragraph makes up for it.
This said, there are a few moments that occur after this moment in this game that push it down the rankings. Additionally, there are a number of plays from the games earlier in the season that let Heyward have this moment to shine. Finally, the Pitt defense coming out so unaware of the situation hurts them a bit, just like Walker’s 8-yard rush against Michigan being hurt by an unaware defense, highlighted a few days ago. As a result, this moment endcaps the top 20.
Speaking of Heyward, this is honestly a completely unplanned coincidence, but his Pittsburgh Steelers play Kenneth Walker’s Seahawks tonight at 7 p.m. EST. I’d recommend tuning in, you might see one of these dynamic players make a play.
Statistically, this play officially broke the record for passing touchdowns in a season by a Michigan State quarterback. This does not get talked about enough as the Spartans were in the middle of their rally to beat the Panthers. Now that we are a few months removed from that, we have time to appreciate it. For Heyward, this was second and final touchdown of his season, and 11th career touchdown for No. 11.
Tomorrow, I get to highlight the win against Michigan yet again, so thanks for sticking with me as we are under three weeks until the 2022 Michigan State football campaign begins.