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Dallas — Michigan State is about to play the toughest kid on the block, and the Spartans will be best served to stand up to them.

That’s the way ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit sees the Cotton Bowl matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and No. 2 Alabama on Thursday with the winner earning a spot in the national championship game.

“When you play a team like Alabama that’s kind of a bully, they beat people mentally before they get into the game,” Herbstreit said on Wednesday. “You’ve got to show them, ‘We’re here for 60 minutes.’ You’ve got to punch them back and let them know. If it means you get a 15-yard penalty, then you get a 15-yard penalty.”

It brought back memories of former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi saying his team likes to play 60 minutes of unnecessary roughness.

It might not take that, but winning the line of scrimmage will be vital in this game.

For the Michigan State offensive line, it might be the toughest test of the season. Herbstreit loves the Spartans’ experience up front, but it will be a challenge.

“I’ve called a number of Alabama games this year and their strength, by far, is the defensive line,” Herbstreit said. “You’ve got three first-round guys, potentially, on the defensive line. You’ve got a middle linebacker who’s a first-round guy. They are big, physical athletic guys.

“With Michigan State, you’ve got offensive linemen who have played a ton of football, but do they have the twitch, the quickness to be able to stay with Alabama? And I think play-calling will be big to try to take some of the pressure off them, getting the ball out fast, trying to show a variety of formations and motions, just try to make them think to slow them down.”

The defensive side of the ball is where Herbstreit believes the Spartans can impose their will.

Plenty of focus will be paid to stopping running back Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner, but Michigan State has its share of playmakers who could put Alabama in difficult down and distances.

“Malik McDowell is an animal on the inside,” Herbstreit said. “I can’t wait to see him in this game and what he can do. The key to me is, I think they’re gonna hold up against Derrick Henry, because I think they’re determined to come down downhill against a running game. If they can get Alabama to a third-and-6-plus, that’s the key to the game.

“If (Alabama quarterback) Jake Coker is third-and-2, they’re gonna keep drives alive. If you get Jake Coker in third-and-6-plus, they’re like 111th in the country. That’ll be to me the whole story line, because then (Shilique) Calhoun and McDowell and company, they can really pin their ears back and go after the quarterback and create havoc.”

But all comes down to playing tough, Herbstreit said. Not backing down from an Alabama team that has won three national titles under coach Nick Saban will be imperative for a Michigan State team that has won four straight bowl games.

“There has to be a little bit of an edge to you,” Herbstreit said. “That’s what Ohio State did (in last year’s semifinal game). They were down 21-6, looked like it was gonna be a blowout, then all of a sudden Ohio State made a play, and then they kind of stood back up to them and said, ‘Hey, we’re not afraid of you.’

“It changed the game emotionally. And then they started running the ball with Zeke Elliot. It has to be that kind of game for Michigan State — withstand the emotions early, throw the ball, then get back to trying to run the football in the trenches.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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