Cotton Bowl 2015: The 2015 Cotton Bowl will double as the second College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year’s Eve. The Michigan State Spartans will face the Alabama Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in a battle between two smashmouth teams. Three key statistics will decide Thursday’s contest. We’ll take a look at each stat as well as the primary matchups that will affect the bottom line.
Alabama comes into the game as the nation’s leader in sacks with 46, per cfbstats.com. If the Spartans offensive line can’t contain the Crimson Tide pass rush, it’s going to be a long night for quarterback Connor Cook and the Michigan State offense.
Highly touted left tackle Jack Conklin figures to draw the toughest assignments throughout the night. The team could charge him with blocking defensive end Jonathan Allen or pass-rushing linebacker Tim Williams on any given play.
Both Crimson Tide defenders bring a different style to the table. Allen is a physical pass-rusher who is more likely to bull rush; Williams is blazing fast and will test Conklin’s ability to move his feet. Repeated failure is not an option for Conklin. His quarterback’s health and the offense’s potency could be hinging on his performance.
Connor Cook’s Completion Percentage
The Spartans quarterback has been one of the best in school history. He’s already the school’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns with 71, per Sports-Reference.com. Even with all he’s accomplished, though, Cook has never had a completion percentage above 60 in any of his four seasons with the Spartans.
He’ll need to be as accurate as he’s ever been if the Spartans are going to beat Alabama.
The Alabama run defense is No. 1 in the nation. It’s unlikely that Michigan State will be able to establish its running game to save Cook from difficult 3rd-and-long predicaments. In these situations, Cook will have to complete passes into tight windows.
That task doesn’t fall squarely on the quarterback’s shoulders. Senior Aaron Burbridge has been Cook’s go-to receiver all season. He has 14 receptions for first downs on 3rd-and-7 or longer.
Burbridge must get separation from Alabama’s defensive backs—specifically senior Cyrus Jones, who will probably draw the assignment of covering the Spartans’ leading receiver.
Derrick Henry’s Carries
When Alabama is running the ball, it’s in control of the game. That’s why Derrick Henry’s carries are a barometer for the team’s success. If he gets 35-plus carries (he’s had 90 combined in Alabama’s last two games), it’s bad news for Michigan State.Alabama’s offensive line is fierce, and Henry is a load to bring down. The Spartans defensive line has to compete at the line of scrimmage. Defensive tackle Joel Heath must be a force against Alabama center Ryan Kelly and the other Crimson Tide interior linemen.
If Heath can clog the middle, he’ll free teammates such as middle linebacker Riley Bullough to chase down Henry in the backfield. Getting there is only half of the battle, but it’s the best the Spartans can hope for in their quest to slow down the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner.
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