Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Baylor, Michigan State Square Off With Plenty at Stake

Photo By: Photo by Ian Halperin, CBAA

Two college football programs that have ranked among the nation’s best in recent seasons meet in the 79th Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic with a chance to add to their credentials.

For No. 5 Baylor (11-1, 8-1 Big 12), the New Year’s Day game at AT&T Stadium is an opportunity to collect its first victory in a major bowl in more than 50 years and register its first 12-win season.

For No. 8 Michigan State (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten), a victory would be its first over a top-10 team this season and would extend its bowl win streak to four.

“You always want to win your bowl game, your last football game,” Spartans Head Coach Mark Dantonio said. “To me that’s as important as anything in your football season. It sets you up for the next year. It puts a stamp on it for your seniors.

“So we have those things to play for as well as, I think, putting us in the national conversation. I think we’ve been in that conversation throughout the year. [We] had a disappointing performance against Ohio State, but we’ve rallied back and we have another opportunity to establish ourselves.”

Michigan State won the Rose Bowl last year and fell just shy of reaching the Big Ten championship game with its loss to Ohio State. It is playing in its school-record eighth consecutive bowl game.

Baylor’s last win in one of the traditional major postseason games came in the 1957 Sugar Bowl. But under Briles, the program has achieved national prominence. The Bears have won 26 of their last 29 games – only Florida State (29-0) has been better during that span – claimed a Heisman Trophy (Robert Griffin, 2011) and reached a top-tier bowl in the Fiesta Bowl last year where they lost to UCF.

Much has been made about Baylor missing out on the first College Football Playoff, but winning the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic would be another step in the program’s ascent, too.

Playing a highly regarded Michigan State team “is motivation enough,” Baylor Head Coach Art Briles said, “particularly how we got to this point last year at the Fiesta Bowl and didn’t finish the job. So our motto has been ‘finish the job’ since last January.”

The teams present a contrast in styles. Baylor wants to play a fast tempo, while Michigan State will take its time on offense. The Spartans lead FBS in time of possession (35:15); the Bears (88.6) have averaged 13 more plays per game than the Spartans (75.5).

Creating turnovers and not turning the ball over is a must against Baylor, Dantonio said. The Spartans lead the nation in turnover margin.

Baylor features a quick-strike spread offense that ranks first in FBS in average yards (581.3) and points scored (48.8) per game led by senior quarterback Bryce Petty (3,305 yards, 26 touchdowns, 6 interceptions) and slew of talented receivers and running backs. All-American tackle Spencer Drango anchors the line.

“Baylor does a great job of that speed-up offense,” Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “I think that’s what makes them as good as they are.”

Calhoun, an All-Big Ten pick, and All-American free safety Kurtis Drummond have made Michigan State the only school to rank in the top 10 in total defense the last four seasons, including seventh this season.

Knowing how to defend Baylor’s spread isn’t the problem.

“If you were able to press pause before every play, you know exactly what you have to defend and what you have to do,” Michigan State Assistant Coach Mike Tressel said “But people aren’t able to think that quickly. And the mental toughness, I think, is a bigger challenge to this game than it has been before this season or in my memory.”

Coaches have made it no secret that Michigan State wants to take away Baylor’s short passing game and force deep throws. The cornerbacks will line up tight on Baylor’s receivers rather than playing several yards off as most teams have done. The only opponent that consistently pressed was West Virginia, which handed Baylor its only loss.

“We do feel like they’re a very, very good defense,” Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles said. “They stop the run very well and they’ve got great corners. So we know it’s going to be a challenge for us, but we’ve got pretty good skill guys on offense.”

So does Michigan State, which has 1,000-yard performers in running back Jeremy Langford and receiver Tony Lippett. Quarterback Connor Cook has thrown for 2,900 yards with 22 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Center Jack Allen made several All-American teams.

Lippett will play both ways, which he did in the last two games. On defense, he will be an extra defensive back but will play a limited number of defensive snaps, Dantonio said.

Michigan State is capping the most successful offensive season in school history, having set several school records and ranking 13th in FBS total offense (496.5). The run-pass production has been fairly balanced.

Baylor’s defense, which faces a lot of spread offenses in the Big 12, has not faced some of the extra-blocker formations that the Spartans use.

“People think of Michigan State and they think run, run, run,” Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. “[Connor] can throw. The other thing is he will run. They will run him a little bit.”

Baylor ranks 40th in total defense (367.7) and is led by defensive end Shawn Oakman (All-Big 12 first team), senior linebacker Bryce Hager (All-Big 12 second team) and safety Orion Stewart (All-Big 12 first team).

Both teams are in transition with coordinators.

Kendal Briles became offensive coordinator when Phil Montgomery left after the regular season to become Tulsa’s head coach. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has accepted the head coaching job at Pittsburgh but stayed for the bowl game. Tressel and Harlon Barnett have been named co-coordinators heading into 2015.

Narduzzi said he’s embracing the opportunity in his last game as coordinator.

“It’s a great challenge,” Narduzzi said. “This is what we coach for – games like this. This is an exciting game. So playing on Jan. 1, a Jan. 1 bowl game against Baylor, what else are you looking for?”

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