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Scouting Report and Prediction: #3 Michigan State 12-1 vs. #2 Alabama 12-1

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Logo 2015.  Photo courtesy of Rick Waugh.

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Logo 2015. Photo courtesy of Rick Waugh.

A look at this week’s opponent…

Everything about this game is enormous. The winner will advance to the National Championship game and football immortality. Any time the stakes are this high, it’s fair to call something enormous.

Michigan State comes into the game according to Vegas as nine and a half point underdogs. Interestingly enough that is the same spread that Alabama was favored over Ohio State last year and we all know how that turned out.

Be that what it may, this game is Saban vs. Dantonio. This game is two programs that although they haven’t played often, only once in fact in the 2011 Capital One Bowl in which Alabama destroyed MSU 49-7, the roots run deep. With Saban’s history at MSU and Dantonio with him, this game is very personal.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban said of facing the Spartans, “They beat you basically on fundamental execution and not making a lot of mistakes. And that always makes the team hard to beat. And then you throw in the kind of competitive resiliency they've shown this year, that's really helped them to be very, very successful.”

When MSU has the ball…

The Spartans can’t win if they can’t throw the ball down the field with accuracy and velocity. So the elephant in the room is Cook’s health and when asked how his shoulder is health wise he wasted no time saying, “100%, you got it.”

Before the 2011 Capital One Bowl Nick Saban said of the Spartans offensive attack, “They are stubborn. They will keep trying to establish the run,” and was not worried about MSU going to the air. MSU can’t win without an aerial attack tonight.

I mentioned Saban’s quote to MSU CO OC Jim Bollman and he embraced it saying, “You've always heard me talk about the threat of balance, you know? I really believe that. In most games that we play, not only in a giant game like this, you have to be able to do both aspects of the game. I really think they help each other.”

Bollman added, “But the difference about this game, there's no weather factor. And you can get in some situations where like in the Ohio State game, if – that was difficult for both teams to throw the ball because of the weather. Well, you don't have that situation here. But, certainly, with Alabama's defensive line, they're going to affect both aspects of the game, too.”

Bollman finished talking of that need for balance saying, “So the challenge is always beginning up front. You know, we talk a lot about the lines, really, both offensively and defensively because Jack and his compadres give everybody else a chance to do their job. So that's where things start. And, again, you put it in perspective of if you're going to sit there and throw it all the time and those guys are going to rush every single time – putting it another way, you're going to run every single time, they're going to bring more guys in the box, this and that. So we have to keep doing things to counteract the other. That will be the approach as it always is.”

CO OC Dave Warner had a very interesting response to my exact same question referencing Saban’s quote. “I think it’s important Thursday. I think it's important every week. I mean, I say this all the time. We're going to try and establish a run. And if you're able to do that, it might not happen right away. It might take a quarter or two quarters for us to get some running game going. But when you're able to get that going, that opens other things up.”

Warner added, “So we're going to be stubborn maybe again and try and keep running in there. But I think we've got a quarterback that can do some good things in the pass game as well. So we're going to try and establish a run, but we're going to try to be balanced, too. So that's always the trick. Trying to find that happy medium. Especially when you've got offensive linemen like this always saying, ‘Let's run the football. Let's run the football. Let's run the football,’ that's all I hear in the headsets from State. These guys want to run the football.”

MSU WR and future NFL player Aaron Burbridge addressed the Spartans aerial attack for tonight. “It's about finishing. It's also about the chemistry we have on this team. We trust each other. I know Connor is going to make that pass and he knows I'm going to make that catch. Jack is going to get his block. We know we can trust each other to get the job done. Connor is the best quarterback in the nation in my eyes. He's a competitor. He'll go out there and make a mistake and bounce right back, you know? So I don't know if I compare him to Tom (Brady) or Peyton (Manning). But, yeah, like he said, that's a good compliment.”

All American LT Jack Conklin acknowledges MSU has to be able to pass and run and getting that balance is critical. “It goes back to being able to run the ball. Being able to run the ball sets up the play action. Makes it easier for Connor to throw even when we're just sitting back because it keeps the defense thinking. So I think really, it's just focusing in right now on being able to handle these guys up front. Being able to handle their hands. They're really good with their hands. We've really been focusing on taking away their hands. And getting up to the second level, if we can get to our running backs one-on-one with their secondary, I we know we're going to have a good chance of winning this game.”

Alabama DC Kirby Smart is also the head coach of Georgia and will assume those duties full time after the game. He also respects the MSU running game, but sees Connor Cook as the key to a Spartan win.

Smart continued his praise of Cook, but also sounded like his boss from prior to the 2011 Capital One Bowl by echoing the Spartans being stubborn running the ball. “I would definitely say Connor Cook is the straw that stirs it. They're really good. Their backs – we've preached to our guys, they have big, physical backs, not a whole lot different than what we're used to at Alabama. So when you start talking about a stable of those guys, they're going to be fresh and they're going to play a lot of them. They kind of go with a hot hand each game, and each one has a different attribute. But they're all big, and that's tough to defend when you've got an offensive line that's as experienced as theirs. Ton of starts. Connor Cook, 38, 39, however many starts it is, and such a good leader, there's no defense that we can put out there that he hasn't seen. So for us, that's the challenge, is being able to control Connor Cook and still stop the run game which they're stubborn with, they're patient with. They know what they're doing in the run game.”

MSU All American C Jack Allen said the extra preparation time is a blessing.  He said, “Yeah, they have a couple different wrinkles on defense, and they do stuff a little differently. But at the same time, each team has had a couple of weeks to prepare now. So I think both teams will be prepared for the game and the little wrinkles that each team has.”

Dantonio said of the Alabama defense, “They're extremely well-coached. They play very disciplined. Due to some of the people I've worked for, I understand technique, et cetera. So I've watched their secondary. I've watched their linebackers. Their linebackers stay clean. Downhill players, thumpers, big thumpers, great athletes as well. In the backend, they're very well-coached, play on balance, very good tacklers in space, play the ball in the deep part of the field.”

Saban said of the MSU offense, “Michigan State is a team that obviously is hard to beat. And I think they do the things that you need to do to be hard to beat. They don't turn the ball over. They have great balance on offense, players do a great job of executing, and they're very well-coached. So some teams are really, really flashy and they go no huddle, fast pace, do all these things that create this mirage of big plays and space plays. And that's not necessarily the kind of team we're playing.”

This is real simple. Connor Cook, if healthy enough to throw with velocity and accuracy, is the best QB the Crimson Tide has faced this year. It isn’t even close. I believe he is, so the key is the Spartan offensive play calling.

MSU doesn’t have to throw more than they run, but they have to pass with success. MSU can throw the ball down the field on Bama with a healthy enough Cook and that is how they will be able to run on the Tide. That is why if Cook is healthy as expected the Spartan play callers must ride their future NFL first round draft pick loose and ride his arm to a national title.

When MSU is on defense…

Pressure is the key. Alabama struggled earlier this year when OC Lane Kiffin was allowed to throw the ball around the field. Saban’s edict of running the ball willed BAMA to this game. Coker can run, but when forced to make quick decisions he struggles.

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For MSU to win, they must make Alabama QB Jake Coker throw under pressure. He can run and when he has time he is deadly, but he is a liability under pressure.

I asked Riley Bullough about making the game come down to Coker’s arm and he said, “Coker, he's a game manager. He does a great job. Talking defensively what we want to do is stop the run. That's kind of what we want to do each and every week, especially this week going against Derrick Henry and that Alabama offensive line. So we feel like if we can take away the run as best we can and put the game in Coker's hand to throw it, you know, that's what we really want to do.”

I also asked CO DC Harlon Barnett about Alabama not wanting Coker to have to throw and throw under pressure. Barnett said, “Similar to Iowa and that, they're going to do what they do. They're going to try to run the football, establish the run, and then work the play-action game off of that. So as Riley [Bullough] said, our game plan every week is to stop the run obviously and then try to make them one dimensional. He's (Coker) a game manager, like Riley just said. That's what we've been talking about. We know how Coach Saban is. He's going to want them to not turn the ball over, dink and dunk it, and then take shots when they feel like appropriate time to take shots down the field. So we have to be prepared for those type of things. I think we will be. And look forward to the challenge.”

Derrick Henry is known because he won the Heisman, but don’t underestimate his size. He physically beat people up. The Spartans must attack the Crimson Tide backfield all night. Blitzes designed to either envelope Henry or make QB Jake Coker throw quickly.

Barnett agrees and he likes what his violent MSU D is bringing tonight. “It's very important. Again, that's what we pride ourselves on is playing fast, physical and violent at all times in every game, not just because it's Derrick Henry. But if you're going to pound a back up in there or if you're a team that runs your quarterback a lot, we expect them to get a lot of hits on him and guys flying in there. And he should feel it after the game; he should. We're a tough, physical defense like we pride ourselves on.”

Henry told me of the Spartans violent D and their need to attack him, “They got a big physical front, and they do a great job. They're very destructive, very fast, and try and control the line of scrimmage. So we've been practicing hard for these guys and watch the film on them. Also linemen doing a great job, this whole process of blocking apparently so hard. So they're a very good defense and do a great job for what they do.”

QB Jake Coker echoed Henry’s respect for the physical style of the MSU D. “I think the defense as a whole is real physical. They are going to be where they're supposed to be. And it's going to be a real tough matchup. So we're just going to have to keep practicing what we're practicing and do what we do. And it's going to be a tough game. So we just got to be ready for it.”

Dantonio has great respect for the BAMA offense saying of their unit, “When you look at them offensively, very cohesive offensive line. You see structure. You see toughness. You see effort. You see knowledge of what they're supposed to do, which are the three things that I've basically learned from a very early time in coaching with Nick that has to happen if you're going to be successful. And you see that, and you see them playing at a very high level.”

Saban is not a loquacious man, but was even less when talking about that excellent Spartan defense. “Defense is very sound and solid and the players have a great understanding of it and do a great job of executing it.”


I have reported it many times, but Nick Saban told me prior to the 2011 Capital One Bowl that Dantonio and the Spartans were, “Stubborn and will keep trying to establish the run.” MSU can’t win doing that tonight. They don’t have to pass for more yards than they run BUT they will have to pass to run.

I asked Dantonio about Saban’s comments back then and his approach tonight. “I think any football team wants to be balanced. Regardless of where you go in the country, if you see an option football team, they need to throw the ball to be successful as well. I think that goes hand in hand offensively.”

He continued, “The big thing is you don't want to beat yourselves and make mistakes. You want to make sure you are on the short end of the sticks when it comes to third down or you are putting first downs behind each other, stacking them on top of each other.”

And he finally said, “That's who we are. We want to be a balanced football team. I think we have four outstanding tail backs and have got a good offense line and protect our quarterback. Obviously we are going to throw it, too. But I do think there has to be balance.”

I already referenced that Coach Smart echoes Saban’s thoughts on the Spartans being stubborn. He knows MSU has to go to the air to beat them and he didn’t hide it. “Balance creates difficulty. So you have a hard time. You've got to control both those aspects because if you stop one, they can be really strong in the other, like you mentioned. So, I mean, for us any great team we play, you've got to try to take something away. And you've got to try to mix it up so that they're not doing one thing too often. And that's kind of the game plan with these guys. They do a great job.”

MSU must sell out to stop the BAMA running attack and force Coker to make quick choices. MSU must throw to win. Simply put, Cook is the better QB and it isn’t close. If the MSU play calling (as mentioned above) lets him go out and do it, it will open the run for MSU and that is the biggest intangible; offensive play calling.

Extra Point…

This Spartan team has a quality that only Ole Miss had this season and in case you don’t remember, it was Ole Miss that beat Alabama. The Spartans want the Crimson Tide. They aren’t intimidated, they won’t cower, and they aren’t scared.

Even in the 2011 Capital One Bowl you saw some Spartans that felt that way, but the Spartan program was rebuilding and many of the players looked at Alabama and were overwhelmed before it started. Those guys had not been in this position as of then. These guys have.

Dantonio addressed his team’s mindset. “We know how to win. We're pretty resilient as a group. We've got some very good players that can become the one. And when I say "the one," I mean the guy that can bring you back. And I think that's the biggest thing.”

He added, “They believe in each other. They trust each other as people, and there's a camaraderie there. I have just said really our seniors have done another outstanding job as a group in terms of leadership. And I think when your seniors are happy. And they're excited about their opportunities and they're successful, that just sort of permeates through the whole football team and creates energy.”

This is the healthiest that MSU has been ALL year. With a game plan that wants Coker to throw Harlon Barnett was nearly gleeful talking about future NFL S R.J. Williamson being back and the real expectations for his performance tonight. “He's doing well. We do expect him to play significant reps. Practiced all last week, the last time we were out at home, and then practiced yesterday. He looks good. He's always been in the meetings, so he understands. He's a smart kid. So he understands what they're trying to do, how they're trying to attack us. And he's running around well. He looks good, so we look forward to having him back.”



I say 20-17 and the Spartans will move on to the College Football Championship Game!