Jan. 1, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
TAMPA, Fla. - Whenever a Big Ten team gets matched up against one from the Southeastern Conference in a bowl, we get a lesson in geography.
Slow people live above the Mason-Dixon Line, and fast ones - especially football players - live below it.
Michigan State defensive back Isaiah Lewis would like to test that theory by challenging Georgia to a track meet in addition to the playing the Bulldogs in the Outback Bowl because he doubts its validity.
"I don't have much to say about their speed," he said. "I've played against fast guys in the Big Ten, and people don't think about it, but we've got fast guys, too. Honestly, I really don't see any difference.
"If you want to look at the linemen, they've got some fast big guys, but skill-wise, we've got fast guys, too. You can find fast guys anywhere."
The Spartans weren't daunted by Florida's supposedly superior speed when it won the 2000 Citrus Bowl, 37-34, with a physically dominating performance.
By the same token, MSU was out-muscled by Alabama in a 49-7 Capital One Bowl loss last season.
Defensive backfield coach Harlon Barnett, who as a Spartan defensive back was on the losing end of a wild 34-27 shootout with Georgia in the 1989 Gator Bowl, said too much is made of the Big Ten vs. SEC speed argument.
"They talk about the speed down South and how the Big Ten is slow, but I don't get caught up in all that because I think it's all relative," Barnett said. "It just depends who the players are and what the matchups are. We've got guys who can run and can play physical, and they do too.
"It's a matter of executing the game plan and playing football the way it's supposed to be played."
"We can put (Martin) up against anybody, and he can get open," said wide receivers coach Terry Samuel.
There is no question that speed is a valued quality, but so is toughness.
"Being physical is something we stress all the time anyway," Barnett said. "We don't stress it any more playing against Georgia or anything like that. We expect that style of play every week. They'll be ready to go."
Georgia head coach Mark Richt isn't aware of a line of demarcation where speed begins and ends.
"When you get to a bowl game, you're usually playing a pretty good opponent, or at least an opponent that is like you," he said. "So, the game should be pretty evenly matched. Hopefully, our personnel is good enough to compete."
Even if the Spartans can't out-run Georgia, there's nothing that says they can't out-hit the Bulldogs, but MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi expects Georgia to hit back.
"We want to be very physical, but every game is that way," Narduzzi said. "I hope our kids are a little bit fresh because this is going to be a physical football game. (The Bulldogs) are physical, they're big, they're strong, but we're fast and strong as well.
"We can set the tone. We want to start fast and set the tone, that's for sure."
NOTES & QUOTES: They're just numbers on a piece of paper, but offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said players respond to concepts such as becoming the first MSU team to win a bowl since 2001.
"I think they do," he said. "They have a lot of pride. They certainly have had an outstanding season, but you hear 10-4 versus 11-3 and it sounds different, it tastes different, it feels different. I think they have a strong objective to finish strong."
Quarterback Kirk Cousins and some of the other fifth-year seniors figured out they have participated in 440 practices - including spring and preseason camps and bowls - as Spartans.
"When you think about it, that's a lot of times putting on those shoulder pads and putting on that helmet learning the game of football," Cousins said. "When you're in the midst of going through each one of those 440, you don't think there will be a day when it will be the last time.
"But here we are, looking at teammates who have decided they're not going to play professionally, so for them it truly is the last time. For those of us who are trying to play professionally, we hope there are still some great days ahead of football, but for the last time to wear the Spartan head on my helmet will be a special experience and one we want to make good on."
Samuel has no doubt that B.J. Cunningham will excel in the NFL just as he has with MSU.
"I don't even second-guess that part of it," Samuel said. "He's got the skill-set; he has the hands, his football IQ is up there. Of course, people are going to wonder about speed, but like I say, Jerry Rice was a 4.6 (seconds in the 40-yard dash).
"I don't think that's part of the equation. I think it's a guy's drive, body mechanics and understanding and interpretation of the routes. When you put those things together, he's got it. I don't think speed will be a factor. He will be an NFL wide receiver."
Martin's NFL stock continues its ascent.
"He's got the speed and his football IQ is right there now," Samuel said. "I think his biggest step was for everybody to see he could be a full-time wide receiver and not a gadget guy."
Senior tight ends Brian Linthicum and Garrett Celek will be playing their final game as Spartans and Roushar is already looking forward to filling their roles with Dion Sims, who's still recovering from a broken wrist, and sophomore Derek Hoebing.
However, Roushar admitted he has looked across the street from Spartan Stadium at the talent in the Breslin Center where center Derrick Nix has slimmed down to 270 pounds and at 6-foot-9 would be a huge target.
"I've looked at him," Roushar said. "Before he thinned down I was looking at him as one of those left tackles."