FCU Bowl Season 2014-15: Cotton Bowl Preview

The College Bowl Season is upon us, and Pylon University is bringing the breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. In this edition, it’s the Cotton Bowl preview.

The Matchup

WHO: Michigan State Spartans (10-2) vs. Baylor Bears (11-1)

WHAT: Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic

WHEN: Thursday, January 1 – 12:30 p.m. EST (ESPN)

WHERE: AT&T Stadium – Arlington, TX

Two teams that missed out on playoff invitations square off in this New Year’s Day meeting. Michigan State bounced back from an early September loss to Oregon in Eugene by reeling off six straight victories, including a thrilling five-point win over Nebraska in which the Spartans defense stymied talented running back Ameer Abdullah. But Michigan State stumbled against Ohio State, blowing an early lead and losing by 12. While coach Mark Dantonio argued for playoff inclusion on the basis of their ten wins, Michigan State was left out of the discussion.

Baylor also believes they were snubbed by the committee, and with a stronger argument than their opponents. The Bears started the season with six straight wins, including a three-point victory over then-No. 3 TCU. However, the Bears stumbled the next week, losing to West Virginia by 14 in Morgantown. While Art Briles’s squad found their footing and finished with five straight wins ‒ including an 11-point victory over Kansas State in the season-finale that earned the Bears a share of the Big 12 title ‒ the playoff committee was unconvinced. Instead of heading to New Orleans or Pasadena, Baylor remains close to home this holiday season.

When Michigan State Has the Football

Junior Connor Cook leads the Spartans offense after turning in another solid season. He completed 58.2% of his passes for 2,900 yards and 22 touchdowns, with only six interceptions. Cook had only one multiple-interception game, throwing two picks in the loss to the Ducks. Except for the mid-November victory over Maryland, he threw at least one touchdown in every game this year.

Helping Cook in the passing game was the Big Ten’s best receiver, Tony Lippett. The senior caught 60 passes for 1,124 yards and 11 touchdowns while being named the conference’s top receiver. Lippett also received the Governor’s Award as Michigan State’s Most Valuable Player. He is a tall and physical receiver who makes tough catches in traffic while fighting off defenders, and this second-down reception against Purdue is one such example:

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Joining Lippett are several other talented receivers, including Keith Mumphrey, Macgarrett Kings Jr., Josiah Price and Aaron Burbridge. Mumphrey caught 22 passes for 408 yards and two TDs. Kings (26/385/1), Price (23/347/5) and Burbridge (25/301/1) round out the solid receiving group.

Jeremy Langford was a workhorse for the Spartans from the running back position, carrying the football 249 times (19th most in FBS), gaining 1,360 yards, and scoring 19 TDs. He started the season slowly, not notching his first 100+ game until MSU’s fourth game against Wyoming. Langford then eclipsed the century mark in every game the rest of the season. The senior scored three TDs in each game over three straight weeks against Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State. He is a strong, “one cut and go” runner, as shown in this sequence against Ohio State:

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Langford takes the handoff on a counter play, identifies the hole, makes one quick cut and bursts into the secondary for a big gain.

Baylor’s defense performed above average, giving up 367.7 yards per game and 24.2 points, ranking 41st and 39th in FBS respectively. Considering the high tempo of Big 12 offenses, Baylor’s numbers look even better as they allowed an average gain of 5.17 yards per play (33rd in the nation). Two linebackers, Bryce Hager and Taylor Young, key the defense. A senior, Hager led the squad with 101 tackles, 70 of which were solo stops while Young, a freshman, placed second on the team with 76 tackles, 53 coming unassisted.

A trio of front-line players have been impressive in generating pressure on the quarterback. Junior defensive lineman Shawn Oakman led the team with 10 sacks, while freshman K.J. Smith posted five and junior Beau Blackshear added 4.5. Oakman is a big and strong defender off the edge, as shown on this sack against Texas:

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The defender beats the left tackle with a ferocious rip move before using a bull rush on the running back. He then sheds the RB and takes down Tyrone Swoopes for the seven-yard loss.

Two sophomore defensive backs have starred for the Bears this season: Orion Steward and Xavien Howard each notched four interceptions on the season. Howard grabbed a key INT in the season-ending victory over Kansas State, while Stewart picked off two passes in the win over Texas.

When Baylor Has the Football

It all starts with Bryce Petty. The senior did not duplicate his eye-popping numbers from 2013 but completed 62.1 percent of his passes for 3,305 yards and 26 touchdowns, against only six interceptions. The QB missed time due to a concussion and played most of the season with a lingering back injury, but when he is on he can be deadly from the pocket. He threw for 510 yards and six touchdowns in the 61-58 victory over TCU, including this perfect 66-yard go route to Antwan Goodley:

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Goodley was one of three receivers to catch more than 50 passes this season for Baylor. Sophomore Corey Coleman led the Bears with 57 receptions for 969 yards and ten touchdowns. Goodley caught 51 balls for 737 yards and six TDs, while KD Cannon, a freshman, caught 50 passes for 833 yards and six scores.

While Baylor’s passing attack ranked 5th in FBS with 346.2 yards per game, their running game was also strong, averaging 235.2 yards per contest, good enough for 23rd in the nation. Sophomore Shock Linwood led the way, gaining 1,226 yards over 240 carries and scoring 19 touchdowns. The RB is a strong runner with great balance, as shown on this run against TCU:

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Across the field the Bears will find a stingy Spartans defense, which ranked 6th in FBS while yielding only 293 total yards per contest. Michigan State held opponents just 97 rushing yards per game, while surrendering only 196 yards on average through the air. Free safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes look to be the next Spartan defensive backs to make the leap to the NFL. Drummond, a senior, led the team in tackles (68) and INTs (4). Waynes, a junior, is considered one of the premier cornerbacks in the nation. He picked off three passes and broke up seven others on those rare occasions the opposition threw in his direction. Junior RJ Williamson intercepted three passes, returning one for a TD against Michigan and another for a TD against Maryland.

The Spartan linebacking corps is led by Ed Davis and Taiwan Jones. Both players notched 11 tackles for losses in 2014. Davis, a junior, tallied 56 tackles and six sacks. Jones, a senior, contributed 55 tackles and four sacks. Michigan State’s defensive front is led by bookend defensive ends: Marcus Rush and Shilique Calhoun. Rush, a senior, led the team with seven sacks, including this takedown of Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg:

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Rush shows speed off the edge, along with impressive handwork, to beat the left tackle for the sack.

Calhoun is a strong player on the opposite edge. Here he uses pure strength to beat the Michigan left tackle and get to quarterback Devin Gardner:

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These two edge defenders need to pressure Petty and force him off the spot in the pocket.

Pro Prospects

A number of players in this contest will continue their careers at the next level. CBS has a first-round grade on Oakman, while Petty and Goodley are also expected to be drafted. Other Bears to watch for during the draft are offensive tackle Spencer Drango, inside Hager, and punter Spencer Roth, touted by CBS as the number-two punter in the draft.

Waynes is a first-round talent with great size for the cornerback position. Other Spartans that should be drafted this year are Calhoun, Drummond, Lippett, Langford and punter Mike Sadler, considered the best collegiate punter prospect by CBS. So on top of everything else this game has to offer, you can see a duel between the nation’s top-two punters.

Prediction

Offense wins games, defense wins championships. Sadly for Michigan State this is just a game. Baylor takes out their collective playoff snub frustration on the Big Ten representatives.

Baylor 45, Michigan State 21

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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