Cotton Bowl Preview: Can Michigan State's vaunted defense slow Baylor's high-flying offense?

By Andy Staples
December 29, 2014

Baylor (11-1) vs. Michigan State (10-2)
Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

BOWL SCHEDULE: Matchups, dates for every 2014-15 game

Baylor fell to the Cotton Bowl either because the Big 12 didn’t identify the Bears to the College Football Playoff selection committee as the league’s rightful champion (which Baylor was) or because committee members simply thought Ohio State was a little bit better. Michigan State fell to the Cotton Bowl because the committee knew Ohio State was better by virtue of the Buckeyes’ 49-37 win over the Spartans in East Lansing on Nov. 8.

The result is a fascinating clash-of-styles matchup between two teams that could compete with any team in the playoff. Baylor’s offense stretches the field vertically, but what makes the Bears especially tough to defend is the fact that coach Art Briles stretches the field horizontally more than anyone else in the country. Baylor can throw to speedy receivers on the outside, or, with the middle of the field open because the defense is spread so thin, slam an opponent with a physical line and tailback Shock Linwood, who averaged 5.1 yards a carry this season. The Spartans, meanwhile, have had one of the nation’s best defenses over the past few seasons because they stuff the run up the middle and dare offenses to beat them over the top or on the outside. Pat Narduzzi, the architect of that defense, will coach his final game as the Spartans’ coordinator before taking over as Pittsburgh’s head coach.

Points of interest

1. Pat Narduzzi’s last stand: Narduzzi was not leaving before coaching his Spartans players one more time. “It’s about these kids and what we built. These are like my sons," he said. "If I didn’t come down here and coach in this bowl game, I'd be letting every one of these 115 guys down and rest of the staff down.”

College Football
New Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi brings legendary defense to ACC

The real winners are the viewers, who will get to watch one of the game’s best offensive minds (Briles) match wits with one of its best defensive minds. And Narduzzi is approaching the bowl with his usual bravado. His defense dares teams to throw deep, and that won’t change even against an opponent that loves to throw deep so much that it has completed 69 passes of 25 yards or more. The Spartans don't intend to play soft coverage that would allow Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty to chew them up with short and intermediate passes, as he did Kansas State in Baylor’s regular-season finale. If the Bears want to win, they’ll have to hit the deep ball. “We’re hopefully going to take away from a short game and make them throw fakes,” Narduzzi said. “They might hit one out of 12 or one out of 10. I don’t know. Maybe [they’ll] hit 10 out of 10, but we're going to make them throw that way down there. Again, it might break one play, but we’re going to be aggressive.”

2. The quarterback battle: The two starting quarterbacks are friends off the field thanks to their offseason work with private quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr. According to the Detroit Free Press, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook texted Petty when the matchup was announced, asking him, “You ready, bro?” (Cook also included a smiley face emoji.) Petty refers to Cook as “my dude,” and the matchup of dude-bros should be excellent. Cook’s ascension as Michigan State’s starter early in the 2013 season made the Spartans the complete team that wound up winning the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, Petty led the Bears to two Big 12 titles in his two years as the starter in Waco. Such a feat would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

While Cook plans to return for his senior season, Petty’s long ride through college football will end at AT&T Stadium. Petty graduated from high school in 2009, the same year as two-year NFL veterans Geno Smith and Matt Barkley. How old is Petty? He originally committed in ’08 to play for Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee. “That’s the craziest part about it. If I'd gone to Tennessee, you know, I wouldn’t be here. Who knows where I’d be?” Petty said. “Four coaches the last [six] years, I guess. We’ve had coach Briles here and unbelievable people and a program that just won back-to-back championships. So, you know, God’s got a plan in it all, and that’s the cool part of that. So to kind of see where I was at 18 and where I am now at 23 is a cool deal, man.”

3. Tony Lippett’s two-way success: The busiest man in college football Thursday will be Michigan State senior Tony Lippett, who is set to start at receiver and cornerback for the third consecutive game. Against Baylor’s warp-speed offense, that could be especially difficult for Lippett, who leads Michigan State with 60 catches for 1,124 yards with 11 touchdowns. Mark Dantonio, who coached receiver and cornerback dual-threat Chris Gamble at Ohio State, said the Spartans will have to rotate to ensure Lippett doesn’t play the entire game on defense, because that would drain him too much to contribute on offense. Meanwhile, Cook remains confident that Lippett will have enough gas in the tank to run routes.

“The main challenge is just how fast Baylor goes, just to not get tired on defense,” Cook said. “And then, as soon as Baylor is done, he’s going on offense and running some routes. So I think the main obstacle for him is just be in shape, be conditioned and not get tired. It takes a different animal to do that.”

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Burning question

Can Tony Lippett and Trae Waynes cover with little help? Waynes, one of the nation’s best cornerbacks, will find himself alone for much of the day because Baylor splits receivers such as Antwan Goodley and KD Cannon wider than the numbers. That means Michigan State’s safeties likely won’t be able to help on most plays. The corners’ best friends may be defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, who can disrupt Baylor’s timing and force bad throws if they can get pressure on Petty.


Baylor DE Shawn Oakman: The 6-foot-9, 280-pound Oakman can wreck a passing game even if he can’t reach the quarterback. If he can pressure Cook or bat down balls at the line of scrimmage, it would put Michigan State in terrible down-and-distance situations. If the Spartans' tackles block Oakman effectively, it should give Cook time to carve up the Bears and allow Michigan State to control the clock. That could give the defense -- except for Lippett -- more rest, and could take Baylor’s offense out of rhythm by keeping it on the bench for extended stints.

Statistically speaking

581.3: Baylor leads the nation in total offense with an average of 581.3 yards a game and scoring with 48.8 points a game. Michigan State ranks sixth in the nation in total defense, allowing 293.5 yards a game.

Final analysis

If this were last year’s Michigan State defense and last year’s Baylor offense, it would be easier to predict that the Spartans could keep the Bears in check. But Baylor has gotten better and Michigan State has declined, which means the Spartans will have to play their best game to slow the nation’s most explosive offense. On the other side, don’t be surprised if Cook has a big day against the Bears’ defense.

The pick

Baylor 41, Michigan State 38

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