Dec. 27, 2010
ORLANDO, Fla. - Under sunny skies and windchill readings near freezing, fourth-year Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio sent his team through a two-hour workout in full pads on Monday, Dec. 27 at Freedom High School, as the seventh-ranked Spartans (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten) continued preparation for the Jan. 1, 2011, Capital One Bowl against No. 15 Alabama (9-3, 5-3 SEC).
"The guys came out with a great attitude, and we got a lot of work done today," Dantonio said. "It's still windy but at least the sun is shining, so working in these conditions only help us as we build toward Saturday's game. The energy and effort has been there in both practices here."
Alabama ranks among the NCAA's Top 10 in scoring defense (fifth at 14.1 points per game), total defense (sixth at 296.0 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense (seventh with a 102.5 rating). The Crimson Tide led the Southeastern Conference in those three statistical categories as well as turnover margin (+10; 25 takeaways).
"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 with hat in hands. 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 2 1/2 yards of the line of scrimmage and really do a great job of taking on blockers. That front seven tries to build a wall. The entire secondary runs well, and they play the ball well in the deep part of the field. When a completion is made down the field, those guys do an outstanding job of trying to strip the ball.
"Defensively, Alabama plays well in the red zone. This defense is tough to run on and difficult to score on. When given opportunities, we've got to make plays.
"Ball security will be a key; just like it is in every big game but especially in a bowl game. We must have the edge in turnover margin to give ourselves the best chance to win. We must play error-free football and avoid mental mistakes. It all comes down to the decisions made by players in positions of leadership on both sides of the ball: quarterback, linebackers and safeties."
"Alabama has a talented, athletic defense," MSU junior quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "It's no surprise that a Nick Saban-coached team will provide a variety of looks, with multiple blitz packages, coverages and defensive fronts. We've watched a ton of video, but with a month to prepare for the bowl game, we also expect to see some new wrinkles on game day. It will be important for us to be able to adjust to those changes during the course of the game. So I anticipate a chess match.
"Toughness and execution will be the keys in determining the outcome of this game. We've won the physical battle more often than not this season. It's important that we take care of the football, so we don't provide additional opportunities for Alabama's explosive offense. It's important that we remain balanced on offense, and we also must avoid the mental mistakes and penalties that can kill a drive. Defensively, our guys will look to create some turnovers, so we have extra possessions to try and put some points on the scoreboard.
"We have a great football team. Against an opponent like Alabama, we have an opportunity to show the nation that this is an elite team."
Cousins enters Saturday's game without his favorite target: junior B.J. Cunningham, who led the team with 50 receptions for 611 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season. Cunningham broke his foot while running a pass route in MSU's Dec. 18 bowl practice in East Lansing, Mich.
"Statistically, we've lost our top receiver in B.J. Cunningham," Cousins said. "We're disappointed that he'll have to sit out this game because he had a great season. We're fortunate to have depth at the receiver positions, and we do have other playmakers that can stretch the field. Mark Dell, Keith Nichol and Keshawn Martin are proven playmakers, and Bennie Fowler really came on strong during the second half of the season. We have confidence in our entire receiving corps. All of those guys will work to create some separation, and then it's my responsibility to deliver the ball."
Michigan State will conduct its third bowl practice at Freedom High School on Tuesday, Dec. 27 at 12:15 p.m. Following Tuesday's practice, Spartan players will have an opportunity to shop at Best Buy with a $420 gift card.
The 2011 Capital One Bowl marks the first-ever meeting between Michigan State and Alabama. Saturday's game will be televised nationally by ESPN with kickoff set for 1 p.m. EST.