TAMPA - It would not be a surprise if defenses dominate Monday's Outback Bowl when No. 12-ranked Michigan State plays No. 18 Georgia.
Michigan State (10-3) is ranked No. 5 in the country in total defense. Georgia (10-3) ranks No. 3 in that category.
Both teams excel at stopping the run, which will likely put a great deal of responsibility on each team's quarterbacks, in the face of fantastic pass rushes.
"Our receivers are going to have their A game and get off the press and create separation," said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. "They (Michigan State) like to impose their will when it comes to knocking guys around and bullying guys. They also have some very talented defensive backs. They trust a lot in man coverage, they allow them to man up, press them, get in their face and try to disrupt them."
Michigan State's coverage isn't true man-to-man, but rather what Spartan coaches call "man-match." Spartan cornerbacks often play press at the line of scrimmage, and will stay in man-to-man down the sideline if the wide receiver stays in that track. But if the receiver runs an in route, the pressing corner usually passes the receiver off to a safety or a linebacker in quarters zone coverage.
Basically, MSU's base defense is zone, but with man-to-man principles at the line of scrimmage.
"They bring a lot of pressure, especially on third down; they bring different packages here and there," Murray said. "But that's what's good about a bowl game, you have three or four weeks to prepare and watch more film, to practice their blitzes. I think we have a very mature team with guys that are able to adjust and bring it."
Georgia ranks No. 3 in the nation in third down defense, allowing teams to convert at only 28 percent.
"They have a tremendous defense," said Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. "I would say their defense is as good if not better than any defense we'll play in the Big Ten. I think it shows with the amount of yards they've been able to sustain in terms of being the third best defense in the country with regards to yards allowed. They're a very, very talented defense and will be a great challenge for us."
"You would predict that it would be very tough for the offenses to just have their way with the defenses; I don't think that's going to happen," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said during Sunday's press conference, the final press briefing prior to kickoff. "Points get scored a lot of different ways, but I think if both teams get the ball on the 20-yard line every time and have to drive it 80, I don't know if there would be many fireworks."
"It's hard to answer some of these questions about how it is going to go because you really don't know," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. "That's why we play the game.
"I wouldn't have thought our championship game would have been 42-39. You just have to play aggressively and play to win."
Similarly, Georgia lost a high-scoring 45-42 game to South Carolina in September. But South Carolina generated 28 points on defense and special teams.
"The defense was responsible for maybe 17 of those points," Richt said.
"The thing that hasn't been talked about much this week is special teams," Dantonio said. "We've made huge plays on special teams throughout the season. They have an excellent kicker, and excellent punter. They'll counter with that. Very good players running down, very good athletes."
Despite those athletes, Georgia has struggled in punt and kickoff coverage. A pair of long punt returns by LSU, one of which for a touchdown, erased what had been a 10-0 lead and a terrific performance by Georgia through half of its game against the No. 1-ranked Tigers in the SEC Championship Game.
The Spartans have a good punt return threat in senior Keshawn Martin, who ranks second in the Big Ten in punt return average at 11.8 per attempt with a long of 57 yards. His punt return for a TD during last year's victory over Wisconsin served as a turning point in that game.
Georgia packs a terrific special teams weapon in cornerback Brandon Boykin. He has four career kickoff returns for touchdowns, although none this season.
The speedy Boykin is the only player in SEC history with three 100-yard plays of any kind.
"But what does happen sometimes is turnovers give field position, or special teams will create momentum, whether it is field position or points," Richt said. "You can make some big plays here and there, but will it be a high-scoring game or a low-scoring game? I would think if there aren't any turnovers or gigantic special teams plays my guess would be that it would be 17 to 24 points might be what it takes to get it done."
Dantonio puts emphasis on tackling during bowl practice, with drills and some live work.
"Neither team has tackled since our championship games, and we have to tackle in space in this game," Dantonio said. "Sometimes bowls are about tackling."
Richt, on the other hand, said the Bulldogs have not tackled in bowl practice. The Bulldogs have "thud" tackled, which includes the initial contact, but no tackling to the ground.
Tough Assignment for Travis Jackson
Redshirt freshman center Travis Jackson will meet the biggest size mismatch of his career when he locks up with Georgia nose guard John Jenkins.
At 351 vs 285 pounds, Jenkins vs. Jackson will also serve as the biggest size discrepancy on the field, on either side of the ball, Monday.
"They are going to play a zero nose; they will put a guy on top of the center," Dantonio said. "He is going to be 350 pounds."
By "zero nose," Dantonio means that Jenkins will hit Jackson head-up and try to control the Spartan center, rather than shade as a one technique and attempt to gain penetration to either side of Jackson. If Jenkins gains penetration as a zero, it will be by sled-blocking Jackson backward into the backfield, not necessarily by angling past him.
In the "zero" technique, Jenkins will attempt to control Jackson, diagnose the play direction, and then disengage to that side of the line. In playing the "zero," Jenkins is patrolling both A-gaps. If he does so successfully in this "two-gap" system, it gives Georgia a numbers advantage in gap control elsewhere along the line of scrimmage, while also enabling linebackers to roam free.
Georgia doesn't play the "zero nose" true 3-4 on every snap. But it's something Jackson will have to contend with on a regular basis.
"Travis is a very good technician, very smart," Dantonio said. "We will help him in certain things that he will be able to be helped on. We are going to move around him, move off of him, do some things.
"Obviously he is going to be challenged there. That's why they are good. But we have played against good, big people. When you play against our people, you play against guys that are 320 pounds.
"He has played against big people. So we'll be fine. We'll compete."
Reynolds Ready As Third Man In
The Spartans will be without starting nose guard Kevin Pickelman who was lost to a knee injury in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Junior Anthony Rashad White has had a strong set of bowl practices. Also, sophomore Micajah Reynolds continues to get compliments from coaches after moving from o-line to defensive tackle for bowl practice
Reynolds spent last spring and the outset of the fall on the d-line, but moved to offensive tackle after the Spartans experienced injuries on that side of the ball.
"We have had four weeks of practice with him (on defense) since the championship game," Dantonio said, Sunday. "He is ready to go. Reynolds is an outstanding athlete, 320 pounds. He can really run and do the things that he needs to do."
White and first-team All-America Jerel Worthy will get the bulk of the work.
"We have very good first-line players," Dantonio said. "So we have three solid defensive tackles. We have a couple of other guys who I would say are functional."
He counted walk-on freshman Jordan Sanders and walk-on senior Blake Pacheco in the "functional" category.
"Functional to me means they know everything we're supposed to do," Dantonio said. "They just have to get it done physically. Denzel Drone is big enough to move in there as well a little bit. We didn't want to take a redshirt off of our young defensive linemen.
"We'll hold on and we'll be fine. We have good players up there."
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