ORLANDO, Fla. - The game will be played on New Years Day, but many of the players and coaches involved believe old school principles will decide the Capital One Bowl.
"Any game you go into, whether it's a bowl game or just a regular season game, the key is can you control the line of scrimmage," Michigan State running backs coach Brad Salem said after practice earlier this week.
Each team will try to do so with quality running attacks and run defenses.
Alabama and MSU each have the ability to toss it around out of spread formations. But Saturday's game could boil down to the ground war and caveman force.
"(They're) very athletic on defense, very physical, and so we need to somewhat establish the line of scrimmage," Salem said. "The team that's going to be able to run is going to have success. That will dictate what's going to happen in the game, both sides of the football."
The teams rank No. 20 (MSU) and 22 (Alabama) nationally in rush defense. And the team that stops the run the best on Saturday will take a major step toward winning.
"This defense is tough to run on and difficult to score on," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio[ said of Alabama. "When given opportunities, we've got to make plays."
One year after ranking No. 2 in the nation in rush defense en route to the National Championship, Alabama tried to reload with nine new starters on defense. The Crimson Tide didn't quite measure up to last year's standard, ranking No. 4 in the Southeastern Conference in rush defense, allowing 123.3 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. Those are good figures, not great ones. Bama is capable of stuffing the run on a given day, but the door is open for MSU to have a solid day on the ground if the Spartans are physical and execute at their best.
"When I look at Alabama, the first thing I see is a big, physical defensive unit," Dantonio said. "When I watch video, it's like watching drills with the defensive linemen hitting the sleds. You never see them turning, you always see their jersey numbers from the end zone camera and that's the characteristic of a good defensive front.
"The linebackers are big and physical. They get up there within two and a half yards of the line of scrimmage and really do a great job of taking on blockers. That front seven tries to build a wall."
MSU also allowed 3.6 yards per carry, ranking No. 3 in the Big Ten in that category and No. 3 in the conference overall in yielding 121.9 rushing yards per game.
Michigan State players and coaches have spent the week complimenting Alabama defensive players on their size, strength and physical toughness.
Their Alabama counterparts have consistently voiced respect for the Spartans' efficiency on defense.
"They really play sound, fundamental, well-coached football and have really good schemes and their players do a really good job of executing and they don't make many mistakes," said Alabama head coach Nick Saban. "They’ve had a lot of success, they’ve got a lot of confidence. It’s going to be a challenge for us to play our best game.”
In terms of ground warfare, the Spartans are coming off arguably their best game of the season, beating Penn State 28-22 in Happy Valley on Nov. 27. The final score doesn't represent the physical edge Michigan State enjoyed that day, establishing leads of 21-3 and 28-10 with the pressure of the Big Ten title being at stake.
Michigan State out-rushed Penn State 163-84 on a cold day in which dominance of the line of scrimmage was critical.
"The thing I see most is that our defensive front really needs to tighten up our belts," said standout Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus "They are going to want to run the ball."
"Coach Saban likes to take away what you do best," said Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Dareus doesn't disagree.
"If we can make them one-dimensional we have a better chance at getting the W," Dareus said. "That's the first thing I see. I also think they have a lot of shifts and motion for us and I think we will be ready for those and knowing our assignments, being on top of things. We need to be able to play fast and to be crisp on every little thing."
The Spartans' blocking strength is on the left side, with senior D.J. Young a second-team All-Big Ten selection and junior Joel Foreman an honorable mention all-league pick.
“They look good," said Alabama middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower, at 6-4, 260 the biggest linebacker MSU will see all season. "Probably their strongest point is their offensive line. They are big, physical and tough. That's something the Big Ten takes pride in and something they have built on but, hopefully, our front seven will be able to clog some of those holes so we can come up with a W.”
Alabama will look to scheme up personnel advantages up front. They will find one when Dareus matches up against Michigan State center John Stipek. Stipek has had a solid senior season, but big-time, NFL prospect time interior defenders have caused problems for Stipek.
Dareus will line up at left defensive end, left defensive tackle or the one-technique nose guard in Bama's base 4-3 or even a zero-technique middle guard in Bama's alter-ego defensive front, the 3-4. In the latter two, Dareus could and would match up directly with Stipek. MSU would have trouble keeping the 6-foot-4, 306-pound junior wrecking machine out of the backfield in such situations.
As a three-tech or a d-end, Dareus could still wind up against Stipek, depending on slants, o-line slides or d-line stunts. MSU will no doubt try to get double-team help for Stipek, but the Spartans might be playing from behind in the interior cat and mouse game where Dareus and Stipek are involved.
"You know Nick (Saban) and their defensive staff are going to have some adjustments for us," said Michigan State offensive line coach Dan Roushar. "They've had a lot of time to prepare, so there will be things that we're not prepared for. You hope your schemes are strong enough to control those things. But he'll have some stuff ready for us, I'm sure of that."
Alabama has tremendous size and toughness in the front seven, but what about team speed?
"That's a good question," Roushar said. "I think we'll see that on game day, but they look to be like any one of the very good defenses in the Big Ten to me. They're very physical, extremely well-coached, fundamentally very sound. You look at the top of our league, and you see those kind of defenses in Ohio State and Iowa. Those guys play great defense. I think they're very similar.
Alabama tied for third in the SEC in yards per carry at 5.0 and fifth in yards per game rushing 175.2
MSU's rushing numbers are similar. MSU ranked No. 5 in the Big Ten in rushing offense 168.8 and No. 5 in yards per carry 4.9.
Alabama might have the nation's most talented tandem of running backs in 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram (5-10, 215) and dynamic sophomore Trent Richardson (5-11, 224). Both players were slowed by injuries this season, but are expected to be fresh on Saturday.
Ingram, a 2008 graduate of Flint (Mich.) Southwestern Academy High School, rushed for 1,658 yards last year (6.1 per attempt).
Those figures were down to 843 as a junior (5.6 per attempt) as the Crimson Tide tried to limit his work and manage his recovery from an August knee injury which sidelined him for the first two games of the season.
MSU is expecting full-power Ingram on Saturday, against his childhood favorite Spartans.
"It's gonna be a fun game," said Ingram, whose father was a star receiver for MSU in the mid-1980s and later the NFL. "I used to visit (MSU) a lot; it was only about 40 minutes from home. . I know a lot of guys that play on their team and we were recruited together and took visits together."
Ingram became acquainted with several current Spartans in the process.
"I know Jerel Worthy, I ran track and played (in high school) against Trenton Robinson. I know Johnny Adams[db], the punter ([db]Aaron Bates), he was on a visit with us too. So I remember a lot of them. I don't know a lot of them personally, but I remember a lot of them from my visits and from hanging around with them on those visits."
Ingram disappointed Spartan fans by committing to Alabama on signing day in February of '08.
"It was real close and they came down to my final three," Ingram said.
Count Robinson among the surprised.
"On our official visit we were talking and I was sure after that, because I had committed, I was sure he was coming here (to Michigan State)," Robinson said of Ingram during a Q&A with Gillian Van Stratt in the current issue of SPARTAN Magazine (the complete text of which will run later today on SpartanMag.com). "I was 100 percent sure (he was coming to Michigan State). So when we came back down and we found out he wasn't coming, I was in shock. I couldn't even believe it because I didn't even know he was talking to Alabama. I was sure he was coming here. So I was kind of in shock, but he's got to do his thing and he is doing it."
And doing it well. Ingram's shifty, physical running style is unique.
"He has some subtle cutbacks where he runs through your weak shoulder or your back shoulder as good as anybody I’ve seen," said Michigan State linebackers coach Mike Tressel> "I know that on power-type of plays, he's going to cut it through the backside A (gap) as quick as he's going to bounce it. He's a powerful runner. I don't know if we've seen anybody exactly like him, but we]ll be up for the challenge."
Ingram will be faced with a Spartan defense geared to read run first and contain the run first.
"They're athletic," Ingram said. "They don't make a lot of mistakes. They're very sound on defense. They work together as a team. They play real well together as a team. Our main focus right now is practice."
Alabama does a good job of getting quick center William Vlachos out to the linebacker level to cut off backside pursuit. That means Lachos will often try to get out and get his hands on two-time All-America Greg Jones "We're really looking forward to that challenge to be honest with you, me especially," Vlachos said. "He's the guy who gets everyone lined up and they kind of feed off him. He's a great player."
Jones has been a model of dedication and commitment during his senior season at Michigan State. Now coaches need him to play his best game on his final day as a Spartan.
"The mark of a great player is to continually improve even after you’ve been named an All-American," Tressel said. "We've talked to him about ending. This is the last game of his career, and it should be the best game of his career."
It may need to be, if the Spartans are going to carve out an edge in Saturday's groundwar.
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