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Dallas — Michigan State is fully aware of what it's in for when it faces Alabama in the Cotton Bowl Thursday night.

There won't be anything fancy in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Quite simply, both teams will line up and run it right at each other, may the best team win.

"There's no smoke and mirrors with Alabama," Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough said. "It really just comes down to who can be tougher for 60 minutes. … There's nothing too crazy about it. You just got to line up and play and see who's willing to continue to battle it out for 60 minutes."

For Michigan State's defense, that means finding a way to contain Alabama running back Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner that ran for an SEC-record 1,986 yards this season and 23 touchdowns.

The numbers are impressive, but what makes it especially challenging is the fact Henry is 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds.

"You have to have the mindset of it's gonna be a 15-round fight and at any time, any punch could knock you out so you can't relax, ever," Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. "You can't ever get bored at stopping the inside zone because that inside zone could pop big.

"But we've gone into a few games this year with that bloodbath mentality. We knew going against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game it would be pound, pound for 60 minutes, and it ended up taking exactly 60 minutes. We went into Ohio State with Ezekiel Elliott understanding we had to stop the run every play, and there can't be a deep breath."

Michigan State has the ninth-best rushing defense in the nation, so it's not like it has no clue how to slow a running game — even some of the best.

The Hawkeyes only gained 52 yards in the conference title game and Elliott managed to pick up only 33 yards on 12 carries for the Buckeyes.

"We like stopping big-name dudes," defensive tackle Malik McDowell said.

Added fellow defensive tackle Lawrence Thomas, "That's the Spartan Dawg way. It's a bloodbath, smash mouth, fist fight — anything that's physical and tough is what we want."

Henry is a unique talent, however. The junior has run for less than 100 yards just four times this season and four times went for more than 200 yards.

"I think the biggest thing with him, obviously a big back," Bullough said. "We haven't really played anyone that big. But what he does well is he doesn't go down. Takes him two, three, four guys to take him down. And he's always falling forward. So he makes the 2-yard gains and turns it into 5 or 6. And if you continue to do that for an entire game, you know, it wears down the defenses. That's what you see what happens as the third, fourth quarter comes around as you watch film on these guys.

"So the biggest thing for us is just to play the entire game, not get lazy, do our job each every play. Once again, he's a great back. We're just excited for the opportunity to play a team like this."

The Spartans are confident, however, that style plays into their hands.

"I look at our defense who has tremendous athletes and people who have a will and desire to want to be great," tackle Joel Heath said. "As you're looking at just the way our defense plays, we play to try to stop the run. That's our goal. That's what we think about whenever we come out and step on the field."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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