By Cody Soto
DALLAS — As 2014 has rolled away, No. 5 Baylor football looks to open up the New Year with a win in the 79th Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic against No. 8 Michigan State on Thursday morning in Arlington.
The Bears have been at the game site practicing for their fifth consecutive bowl game since last Friday, and they’re ready to play, head coach Art Briles said.
“It has been a great week, and it is show time,” Briles said. “The thing about bowl weeks, it’s kind of a challenge to you mentally, our players, our coaches to stay focused and keep a high energy level, but our guys have maintained that.”
The Bears and Spartans face off for only the second time in program history, and Michigan State took a 28-10 win in 1968. Baylor will play on familiar turf as they compete in AT&T Stadium for the second time this season. On Nov. 29, the Bears took a slim 48-46 win over Texas Tech after senior quarterback Bryce Petty went out in the third quarter with a mild concussion.
The national stage will play a factor in how Baylor plays on Thursday. The Bears want to get that sour taste out of their mouths after their 52-42 loss to UCF in last year’s Fiesta Bowl.
“For me personally it’s just to finish. Last year we didn’t finish,” Petty said. “That’s a long time, six months of a bad taste in your mouth. My whole thought process and drive on this game is just to finish and be the best team that’s ever gone through Baylor.”
America’s top offense faces a Top 10 defense in Michigan State that is especially stout against the rush. The Spartans are No. 19 in points allowed per game, and their previous competitors have only averaged 19.9 points per contest.
Junior offensive tackle Spencer Drango described the defensive line mindset similar to Big 12 opponent Kansas State.
“They’re one of the best, if not the best, defensive line in the Big Ten,” Drango said. “They’re similar in mindset to Kansas State where they’re very disciplined, don’t make many mistakes, and then they got big bodies up front but they’re quick. They’re a very good team up front, so it will be a good challenge for us.”
While the Spartan defense often times dominates the headlines, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook leads an elite offense that is balanced in a different way from the Bears.
Cook likes handing the ball to running back Jeremy Langford who helps lead the Spartans to over 200 rushing yards per game, 24th in the nation.
The Spartans also have a big time play in Tony Lippett who will start as both corner back and wide receiver in Thursday’s bowl game. Lippett averages 18.7 yards per catch and has 11 receiving touchdowns on the season. This team has the ability to choose where to go behind very significant leaders in each area.
The Spartans also dominant the time of possession and have control of the ball for a little over 30 minutes each game, so the Baylor defense will need to step up and force turnovers and long situations for Cook and the Spartan offense.
“They’re a big, physical running team,” senior linebacker Bryce Hager said. “As long as we can stop that, I think we’ll be able to get them off the field, get the offense and score.”
Briles and the team know the challenge that they face on Thursday, and in order to bring home the trophy to Waco, they have to play a good game against Michigan State. The Spartans have only lost to Ohio State and Oregon, which are both College Football Playoff teams, and showed to be dominant in the other 10 games.
“Michigan State is a really, really tough football team, that’s been good for a long time,” Briles said. “They have been probably ‑‑ last four or five years been the dominant team in the Big Ten. Mark Dantonio and his staff have done a tremendous job. We know it will be a war.”
Baylor and Michigan State clash in the 79th Cotton Bowl Classic Thursday morning at AT&T Stadium in Arlington at 11:30 a.m. The New Year’s Day bowl will be broadcast live on ESPN.