Baylor and Michigan State will have to adapt to win the Cotton Bowl
The Bears and Spartans have more in common than you think. How they adjust to each other should decide the New Year’s game.
After the Playoff selection committee passed over No. 5 Baylor for blue blood Ohio State, there were certainly worse potential outcomes for the Bears than to draw No. 8 Michigan State in Arlington on New Year’s Day.
Despite Baylor winning the Big 12 two years in a row, an achievement that was once so unthinkable as to be a joke, Bears fans have been disappointed with conclusions. Last year, they were shunted into an unwanted BCS match-up with the mid-major UCF Knights, who then soundly trashed them. This year they miss the Playoff, but they have a golden opportunity to win major credibility.
The Spartans have something to gain as well. Their reputation as a defensive juggernaut took damage when Oregon (predictably) managed to rip them for 318 passing yards. Then that rep lost some more hit points when J.T. Barrett built a case for Heisman consideration with another 300 passing yards on the Spartans in East Lansing. After ranking top-five in Defensive F/+ three years in a row, they rank No. 24 this year.
Will Baylor follow suit? Will Bryce Petty shred the Spartan secondary and show everyone exactly how close his program is to Ohio State? Or will Michigan State rebuild its own defensive reputation and the overall rep of the Big Ten by shutting down the vaunted Bears offense?
More alike than you think
A little known fact about this game is that the Bear defense under Phil Bennett, itself up to No. 16 in this year’s Defensive F/+, is philosophically similar to Pat Narduzzi’s system at MSU. The Bears also play a lot of 4-3 over defense backed by quarters coverage, aggressive press coverage on the outside by the cornerbacks, and shallow safeties who can squeeze the life out of an opposing defense.
The Bears can get nine defenders in on the action in a hurry against a running play, just as the Spartans like to do.
However, whereas the Spartans hope to eliminate scoring, Baylor’s style is more about forcing either quick punts or quick scores that get their offense back on the field and push the tempo of the game. Baylor’s personnel choices reflect playing to win the Big 12 rather than the Big Ten.
Three positions that make this clear are the sam/star/nickel (shown as S below), the free safety (F), and the strong safety ($) in each defense:
The Spartans usually play 6′, 231-pound Darien Harris in their sam linebacker position, 6’1, 202-pound Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Kurtis Drummond as the free safety, and 6′, 214-pound RJ Williamson as the strong safety. That group, built to help stuff runs in the Big Ten, has a 216-pound average.
In contrast, Baylor has 6′, 210-pound Collin Brence, 5’10, 185-pound Terrell Burt, and 6’2, 200-pound Orion Stewart, a 198-pound average. Burt is essentially a third cornerback, and Stewart is better on pass drops than playing downhill vs. the run.
Each of these groups is going to have to play outside of its comfort zone for its team to win.
Baylor safeties have to fortify the front
The Spartans have a diverse run game package. They’ll run from pro-style sets and try and pound the Bears into submission. Teams have found that once-amusing pastime to be more difficult in recent years, as the Bears now field an athletic defensive line backed by scrappy and explosive linebackers like the 5’9, 225-pound Taylor Young.
Sparty has an answer for that challenge: a trap play, which suits the power play that is the building block of their offense.
At first, the play looks like a standard power run with a double team on the defensive tackle (T) between the guard and tackle. However, after guiding him, the guard and tackle both release past the defensive tackle to take on the linebackers. The pulling guard traps the defensive tackle in the backfield. The running back then either cuts inside of that trap block or bounces outside behind the fullback (F).
To beat plays like this and prevent the kind of 30-carry, 130-yard Jeremy Langford day that could the dictate tempo of the game, Baylor is either going to need its All Big 12 First Team linemen — 6’9, 280-pound defensive end Shawn “Groot” Oakman and nose tackle Andrew Billings — to blow up these plays.
Stewart, who will generally be an unblocked defender on plays like this, has to also make tackles on Langford near the line of scrimmage. This is Baylor’s best bet, since Michigan State’s varying blocking schemes will prove a confusing challenge for the Bear line.
Michigan State has to mix it up
There are two main components to the Spartan pass defense: their base quarters coverage that loads up to stuff the run by leaving defenders on islands, and their big zone blitzes like the double A-gap pressure they love to bring on third and long.
The former is going to be seriously challenged when Baylor puts All Big 12 Corey Coleman, blue-chip freshman KD Cannon, and Antwan Goodley on the field at the same time. The Bears can also take their tight end off the field to put a fourth burner out on the field. For instance, against a four-WR set:
At least one of Baylor’s four receivers is going to face a favorable matchup while running the kind of route that can result in a quick six points. They’ll also run switch routes, which the Spartans struggled to defend against Oregon.
Look how far Williams ($) and the middle linebacker (M) line up from the H receiver in this set, if the Spartans play the run as they normally do. It’ll be hard for the Spartans to handle these wide splits without compromising their dedication to always have extra numbers in the box. They’ll have to concede space and back up their safeties, hoping to keep Baylor in front or risk getting burned by vertical routes like this.
There’s no chance that Drummond, Williamson, or the nickel hold up if asked to play tight with the Bear wideouts in Art Briles’ “veer and shoot” offense, with its intense spacing/isolation tactics and vertical option routes.
Michigan State’s defensive scheme assumes that opponents won’t attempt fade routes enough to make the percentages add up and put the defense in trouble. However, Baylor sends receivers deep all over the field. It’s designed to throw deep early and often and execute at a clip high enough to make you pay. The Bears are a nightmare matchup for Narduzzi, in comparison to the Big Ten passing games he’s accustomed to destroying.
This also comes to a head in passing situations, when the Spartans love to overwhelm opponents with six-man zone blitzes. These struggled to corral Marcus Mariota and the Ducks and will face quite the challenge in Baylor’s empty set, which can either put receivers into the soft spots in the depleted zone coverage or overwhelm deep pass defenders with multiple vertical routes.
Michigan State is going to look to limit the Bears’ chances to take deep shots by pounding the ball on the ground and controlling the clock. But Baylor is capable of scoring so quickly that controlling the clock may not be enough.
The game is probably determined by whether or not Narduzzi can adjust his beloved base defense to account for all the unusual stresses Baylor puts on its opponents. If so, the Spartan O can carry the day. If not, this could be another humiliating blow to Big Ten pride that gets Baylor closer to winning the benefit of doubt from committees in the future.