Michigan State football is three days away from its season opener. In its last game, Cal Haladay came up big. Today marks his defining moment from 2021.
Welcome back to the 48th article in my series, the 50 defining moments of the 2021 Michigan State football season. Moment No. 3 provided more than just a spark to the Spartans, it all but ended the game. Cal Haladay wished the Pitt Panthers a happy holiday on this moment.
No. 3: Cal Haladay’s Peach Bowl-clinching pick-six
Why No. 3?
After a disastrous mid-section of the game, the Spartan offense was finally coming alive in the second half of the Peach Bowl. Jayden Reed and Connor Heyward had each provided their own touchdowns (moments Nos. 10 and 20), with Jalen Nailor tacking on a two-point conversion (No. 12).
At the same time, the Spartan defense had spent the majority of this game on the field picking up the offense’s slack. By the time the end of the fourth had rolled around, the defense was tired. As someone who lived through the 2018 and 2019 Michigan State football seasons, this game was bringing me flashbacks of those years. The defense was worn down and the opposition would be able to do just enough to win. Pitt was doing exactly this, driving down to the Michigan State 26 with just over 30 seconds remaining.
At this point, I, along with many other Spartans fans, was praying for overtime. Pitt kicker Sam Scarton was very accurate, going 17-for-21 on the season as well as nailing all three extra points in the Peach Bowl up to this point. All the Michigan State defense needed to do was make one stop the game would come down to overtime.
Pitt’s hopes relied on Davis Beville. Beville was not meant to start this game, as he had been the third-string quarterback for the ACC champs all year. With a Kenny Pickett opt-out and backup Nick Patti breaking his collarbone after two drives, the quarterback found himself in a situation where he could become the hero.
Cal Haladay, however, had different plans. In an eerily similar replica of moment No. 26, Cal Haladay lurks under the line and goes undetected by Beville. Haladay again picks off a backup quarterback throwing to a middle of the field slant and once again cuts to his left and races down the sideline. No one stands between Haladay and the endzone, and Michigan State football now holds a 10-point advantage.
The main person receiving credit on this play is obviously Cal Haladay. He lurked over and cleanly intercepted the ball, turning his momentum upfield to ensure a touchdown. He could have taken a knee and ended the game just as well, but a pick-six is never something to complain about. Full marks here, and if you disagree, you probably are wearing maize and blue when reading this.
One other player to praise on this play was Tank Brown. Brown came flying off of the edge unblocked and made Beville need to release the ball quickly. Throughout the night, Beville was methodical, taking his time and avoiding the bad play. He was 14-for-17 for 149 yards before this, with a touchdown. Brown pressured Beville into the quarterback’s worst throw of the night and secured the Spartan victory. No one mentions Brown’s incredible effort and impact on this play, so let’s try to bring more awareness to the former Minnesota transfer this year.
Additionally, I would like to praise the rest of the Spartan defense on this play. When returning the ball, none of the Spartans go for a cheap shot of a block, instead just running down the field. By avoiding any penalty for a block in the back or something of that nature, we get to celebrate the pick-six in its full glory.
This was one of the most dramatic reversals of fortune for Michigan State football. In terms of impact, this play is in my top five of favorite all-time moments as a Spartan fan. Over time, I believe this play will be featured alongside the best of the last few decades of moments, in the same breath as “Trouble with the Snap,” Kyler Elsworth’s Rose Bowl stop, and LJ Scott’s Big Ten Championship-winning touchdown. Oh, and maybe another dramatic stop that has an article coming soon.
When watching this play, it is impossible to believe that Cal Haladay was only a redshirt freshman in this game. He plays like a Madden “user” middle linebacker, dramatically snatching the ball out of the air and instantly knowing where to take it. On top of that, Haladay is renowned for his gloveless approach to the position, making this catch even more impressive. In my opinion, Haladay was a defensive version of Tre Mosley. He always made the right plays at the right moments but was overlooked. This play might have been the linebacker’s breakout moment. We will see in a few short days.
This play was everything the Michigan State football faithful could have hoped for, so why is this only moment No. 3? A few reasons. With 34 seconds remaining in the game, the Spartans needed only a few in-bounds tackles to force overtime. Neither offense had shown the quick score ability that a team like Michigan had against the Spartans. Additionally, while Pat Narduzzi’s comments are starting to make it so, the Spartans do not have a rivalry with Pitt. The final two moments each come from the Michigan game, and many Spartans would take a Paul Bunyan Trophy over a Peach Bowl win where the two headlining players each sat out for NFL draft preparation.
This play was dynamic, clutch, and sealed the game for the Spartans. It fit every single box that needed to be checked for a high ranking, and I believe No. 3 is very fair. When polling this to my friends, it was always in the top five, with some ranking it at fifth and others as one. I shot for the middle here, placing it at No. 3.
Also, can we take a second to appreciate the play-by-play calling here? I will admit the last three moments are all aided by tremendous announcing. Cal was indeed, one happy Haladay.
Statistically, this was the second Haladay pick-six of the season. This was also the longest interception return for a touchdown of both his career and the 2021 Michigan State football season. The Freshman All American will be a star in the future, and his sophomore campaign is just around the corner.
Tomorrow, I have no clue which moment I want to rank at No. 2. I am so torn between the final two moments that I am still undecided, to be entirely honest. We will both find out within 24 hours. Until next time.