It's the last Q&A of the year and this time we pulled out all of the stops for the Cotton Bowl. The fantastic Ian Boyd of SBN's Football Study Hall was able to answer some (in depth) questions on short notice to help preview this great matchup. Before diving in, I'd strongly recommend reading Ian's insightful analysis of the 2015 Cotton Bowl at Football Study Hall. Many of the questions that you'll see below build off of the article. Now, onward to the questions!
You mentioned that Michigan State and Baylor are very similar in their base scheme on defense, but even a quick look at the 2 deep reveals a different style of player. Do you think the Spartan DL and LBs will be able to contain the Baylor rushing attack? Is there a comparable Front 7 in the Big 12?
I think the Spartan front should be okay so long as they find ways to keep at least six defenders in the box and don’t have to line their safeties up on the sideline. They are used to handling run games as diverse as Baylor’s and are very sound and physical in the box.
Their problem is whether they can keep their good run defenders in close enough proximity to the box to do their thing.
Given that Antwaan Goodley has struggled against elite competition over the previous 2 years, does Michigan State have the type of #1 CB to do the same? Expanding across the field, do you feel that a recently tweaked Spartan defense has the talent across the secondary to play press coverage against the Goodley-Coleman-Cannon triumvirate that emerged as the year progressed?
I suspect Sparty should be able to cause big problems for whomever #1 CB Trae Waynes goes up against in coverage. After him I’m not convinced that any of their DBs are prepared for what’s coming their way. There’s talk that WR Tony Lippett will play the role of #2 CB and I’m going to need to see his 6’3" frame run with Coleman or Cannon on option routes with practiced technique before I’m ready to believe that he’s secretly Richard Sherman disguised as an outside receiver.
Then there’s the issue of the slot receivers, which Sparty doesn’t press in their base scheme, running up field on their nickel and safeties. Kurtis Drummond is a good coverage safety for a Big 10 DB but he’s not as quick or fluid as Terrell Burt and we’ve all seen him get picked on trying to cover vertical routes from speedy slot receivers.
On the one hand, Baylor struggled against a West Virginia defense that brought pressure up the middle with aggressive deployment of LBs. You mention that Michigan State will do the same, and it's clear that Michigan State is much more stout on the DL than WVU. On the other hand, Baylor's passing attack appears to be more diversified, both in terms of target distribution and hot route options, since the WVU game. What's your feel for whether Baylor will be able to handle the Spartan pressure, especially on 3rd and intermediate and 3rd and long?
Baylor didn’t seem fully prepared for West Virginia’s 6/7 man blitzes as they were used to having Petty sit behind 6/7 man max protections and have all day to throw. They adjusted in time to shred OU when the Sooners tried to do the same mostly with their empty set.
I don’t think Baylor can block Sparty’s blitzes, they execute them too well and their players are too explosive. However, I’m not sure it will matter so long as Petty knows where to go with the football. Michigan State is going to have enough trouble matching up with all of the Bears’ speed at WR before they start short-manning their coverages to bring pressure. I’d say the bigger threat is their base pass rush rather than the mega-blitzes they love so much.
It may come as a surprise to many, but Michigan State was sneakily quite efficient on offense. Many at ODB have stated that they felt that Baylor's rush defense was the strongest, most consistent component of the team this year, and I agree. Yet while this defense has been able to contain triple option and pro style rushing attacks, they have at times struggled with tricky or clever rushing schemes that are able to take advantage of what can be overaggressive pursuit. You mentioned a "diverse run game package" - is this the type of talented, well-schemed rushing attack that could find success to the degree that the game is played at the Spartans' preferred pace?
Baylor’s run defense feasted on some weak competition in the Big 12 with Oklahoma as the only team with physicality and talent up front comparable to what Michigan State will bring to the field and the Sooners ran for 5.2 yards per carry on the Bears.
Michigan State’s best chance in this game is stopping Baylor often enough to be able to keep at it with their running game. The Spartans have both the run game variety to attack Baylor in ways that only KSU could match as well as the talent to do it at a high level. As strong as the Baylor DL is this is the toughest match-up for the Bears in the game and you have to wonder if the Bear defensive backfield can hold up for four quarters worth of beating lead blocks and tackling their physical RB, Langford.
While the strongest unit of this Baylor team is up for some debate, you'll find little argument that the secondary is the weakest unit. Despite an improved pass rush, the secondary found itself scorched at times this year - especially when faced with a (desperate) offense prepared to throw deep and throw often. Connor Cook generated NFL draft buzz all year, but decided to return to East Lansing, presumable to work on consistency issues that plagued him this year. Do you think he is capable of excelling in a game where he needs to put up greater volumes than to which he is accustomed? Do you think #1 CB Xavien Howard - who has largely been solid in non-Kevin White games this year - can contain Tony Lippett, the Big 10 Receiver of the year and Cook's most favored target?
I wonder how much damage Lippett will be able to do if they are asking him to run wind sprints with the Baylor WRs when he should be re-collecting himself on the sideline. Connor Cook would have been one of the better, if not the best, QBs in the Big 12 this year and will be hard to handle unless Baylor gets up early and he starts trying to force the issue to keep up.
Like you say, he’s not often been put in position to play catch-up and he’ll force the ball and throw picks at times.
Do you think Michigan State's offense is similar to Kansas State's offense? Both want to establish the run, have solid QBs and rely mainly on 1 WR target. (h/t to PoppyBear)
Sort of, for one don’t forget that KSU’s 2nd receiver Curry Sexton had nearly 1k receiving yards this year ;)
Also, KSU is actually a finesse running team who rely on technique, leverage, and stretch to create running creases. Michigan State are more physical with their double teams and have a stout group up front that will look to knock you aside. Think OU caliber talent and physicality with KSU variety.
Question 7: The Big One
What's your prediction for the score in this game?
Michigan State is unquestionably a very good team but I just think this is a bad match-up for them. Baylor is very good at putting you in a hole early with their defensive aggressiveness, which could take the Spartans totally out of their game.
Additionally, I just don’t think they’ll be ready for the ways that Baylor will put vertical passing stress on their defense. They haven’t faced anything like it before and it will be hard to adjust on the fly, especially while trying to control it with their best receiver playing corner.
I’ll say Baylor: 48-35
A huge thanks to Ian for agreeing to answer so many in depth questions on short notice. After reading through his answers, I have even more respect for this Michigan State team and started wavering on my prediction that Baylor would win but that it would take more than 3 quarters to make the game feel comfortable. It was something of a surprise then to see Ian predict a similar final score as I do. We'll see soon enough!
I hope y'all enjoyed this (intermittent) series this year. If there's interest, we'll try to make this happen more frequently next fall.