Spartans hope to enforce speed limit with Baylor

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Arlington, Texas — The numbers alone are impressive.

Baylor's offense is the best in the nation, scoring 48.8 points and piling up 581.2 yards a game. The Bears were the best in the country last year, too, scoring 52.4 points and gaining 618.8 yards each time out.

In fact, Baylor is one of just two schools, Oregon being the other, to rank in the top five in total offense each season since 2011.

And the only thing Michigan State needs to figure out Thursday in the Cotton Bowl is how to somehow limit that production. It's easier said than done, considering the Bears don't waste any time on offense. They get to the line, get the ball snapped, make quick decisions and do it all over again.

It provides a challenge for opposing defenses.

"Their goal, as a lot of teams that go fast tempo, is to try and get you to not be lined up properly, a lack of communication and miss tackles," Michigan State secondary coach Harlon Barnett said during media day at AT&T Stadium on Tuesday. "The opposite is what we need to do to combat that. It will be a test of wills. Conditioning will be a great part of it, and substitution will be as well."

It's a simple concept but harder to pull off, and while most teams Baylor has faced in the past two seasons have been unable to do so, Michigan State has had its struggles against similar offenses.

This season against Oregon is the most recent example, when the Spartans allowed 28 straight points to close the game in a 46-27 defeat, and a 2012 matchup with Indiana required a second-half surge by the Spartans to pull off the victory.

"I think it's something we struggle with a little bit," defensive end Marcus Rush said. "But I think we are confident that we can. We just got to stop them. Get three-and-outs, slow down their tempo. Substitution is huge. Get guys on the field that are fresh and keeping starters fresh and just getting good rotation in and not allowing the big plays."

Big plays were a big deal against Oregon as the Ducks scored pass plays of 70 and 37 yards while also scoring on a 38-yard touchdown run.

But simply being in good shape and getting plenty of guys in and out of the game — which Michigan State fully intends to do Thursday — is just part of it. Being dialed in and focused each play is also key.

"The key is being able to mentally handle the speed," linebackers coach Mike Tressel said. "Physically, we've worked hard and are in good shape. But not being mentally fatigued and focused on every single play like it's critical to winning, when you can no longer do that we've got to get another guy on the field. That is the key. ...

"I think they try to push you to the point to where a mistake will be made. Baylor wants you to make that mistake, and they capitalize."

Baylor isn't just a gimmicky offense, however. It has the weapons to make it lethal, led by fifth-year senior quarterback Bryce Petty. He was the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2013 and this year threw for 3,305 yards and 26 touchdowns. He has Shock Linwood, the second-leading rusher in the conference with 1,226 yards and 16 touchdowns, to hand the ball off to and a deep receiving corps, led by sophomore Corey Coleman and his 57 catches, 969 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The only hiccup for the Bears this season came with a 41-27 loss at West Virginia, when they managed only 318 total yards.

But moving on and adjusting to how defenses will play them has been important, Petty said.

"I think one of the best things that we have going for us is that we can adapt and change," Petty said. "And so that West Virginia game — you know, people are going to play us different. So for us to do that, we have to adapt to change."

However, it still comes down to going at teams fast and never letting up, which often leads to a point in the game when the Bears feel the momentum swing.

"Yeah, I think those are both a big factor, the speed and tempo which we go," Petty said. "At a certain point in the game that I feel like we're going to just — it just happens. And then we roll with it from there. So for us it's all about knowing that moment is going to come. Sometimes you know one or two or three series sometimes."

But the Spartans, with the sixth-ranked defense in the nation, feel they are prepared.

They fully admit the Baylor offense is different from what they've seen and hard to replicate in practice. But they also think they've seen enough of these offenses to avoid a slow start.

"Definitely, we have to come out and assert ourselves," defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "From the first snap to the last, we have to show how this game is gonna go. They play so fast it has to be from the first snap because you don't know when they can change. Next thing you know they can be up 30 points. So we have to start fast and finish fast."

Cotton Bowl

Matchup: No. 8 Michigan State Spartans (10-2) vs. No. 5 Baylor Bears (11-1)

Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. Thursday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR

Line: Baylor by 2

Series: Michigan State leads 1-0 (MSU d. Baylor, 28-10, at Spartan Stadium on Sept. 28, 1968)

Did you know? Thursday's game marks Michigan State's sixth matchup of top-10 teams in a bowl game. The Spartans are 4-1 in those games.