Alabama’s wary of MSU’s ability to fight to finish

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
"We know how to win," coach Mark Dantonio said of his Spartans, who are 6-1 in games this season decided by a touchdown or less.

Dallas — As Michigan State put the final touches on its preparation for Thursday’s Cotton Bowl matchup with Alabama, one thing that is certain to come up is playing a full, 60-minute game.

If any team in America understands that this season, it’s Michigan State. The Spartans are 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, and twice they won on the final play of the game.

“We know how to win,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We’re pretty resilient as a group. We’ve got some very good players that can become the one. And when I say ‘the one,’ I mean the guy that can bring you back. And I think that’s the biggest thing.

“They believe in each other. They trust each other as people, and there’s a camaraderie there. I have just said really our seniors have done another outstanding job as a group in terms of leadership. And I think when your seniors are happy and they’re excited about their opportunities and they’re successful, that just sort of permeates through the whole football team and creates energy.”

That energy has been on display in some of Michigan State’s biggest games this season.

In the victory over Michigan, the Spartans didn’t lead until the clock ran out, earning a 27-23 win when Jalen Watts-Jackson returned a fumbled punt for a touchdown on the final play of the game.

And in the win at Ohio State, the Spartans never led until Michael Geiger’s 41-yard field goal as time expired. Add to that Michigan State’s 22-play, fourth-quarter drive to beat Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game, and it has proven it knows how to close games.

“What we’ve tried to emphasize is how many games that they’ve sort of been able to show the resiliency that they have,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Whether it’s win the game late in the game or win the game in the fourth quarter, I think that kind of competitive grit is something that you have to have a tremendous respect for. And you’ve got to know what you’re up against when you play against people like that.”

It hasn’t happened overnight for Michigan State. Like building the program overall, it has taken time to turn into a team that can close.

In 2012, the Spartans lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points, but by the end of the season quarterback Connor Cook, then a redshirt freshman, came in to lead Michigan State to a come-from-behind, 17-16 win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

“Never give up and always finish, finish, finish, finish,” Cook said this week. “That’s the big thing we emphasize — go out there and finish. No matter how the game starts, no matter what goes on first half, second half, whatever it is, as long as you go out there and finish, good things will happen.”

And Saban’s players already have heeded his warning to be prepared for a four-quarter battle.

“They’re here for a reason, because they know how to finish,” Alabama defensive lineman Jarran Reed said. “They’ve got great effort and they play all four quarters. They don’t lay down to anybody.”

Geiger: Hip, hip hooray

As a freshman, Geiger was a big part of Michigan State’s run to the Big Ten championship and a win in the Rose Bowl. The kicker was 15-for-16 that season and looked to be starting an impressive career.

But the numbers took a hit last season as Geiger was just 14-for-22. But there was a problem even he wasn’t aware of — he had a torn labrum in his hip.

“It was just after the Eastern Michigan game,” Geiger said. “I didn’t know what it was at first, I just had a little pain. I kind of thought I was hurt but not injured and I just had to work through it. As it wore on through the year I knew I had to get it looked at after the season.”

Geiger had surgery that kept him out of the spring but he was back for preseason camp. However, it took time to get back in a groove as he as just 5-for-9 in the first six games.

Down the stretch, though, Geiger is 7-for-10 and said he’s feeling great.

“I’m kicking the ball the best I have,” he said. “I was a little unlucky to miss two over 50 yards against Iowa, but other than that if you look at the last seven or eight games I’ve been kicking the ball extremely well. I’m happy where I’m at right now and I’m confident and feeling as good physically has I have all year.”

Williamson returns

Fifth-year senior safety RJ Williamson hasn’t played since the Big Ten opener against Purdue on Oct. 3 because of a torn biceps muscle.

He’ll be back on the field for the first time in the Cotton Bowl and he’s champing at the bit to get back in the game.

“It’s a relief,” Williamson said. “It’s special playing in the playoffs and it’s a big step. I’m excited. I can’t wait for Thursday and hopefully we get the win and get back to East Lansing.”

With Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson starting at safety, what role Williamson might have is unclear. But there’s little doubt he’ll play.

“I really don’t know,” Williamson said. “I’m prepared for whatever. Whatever I can do to help us win the game I’ll be prepared for it.”