Officially, the Cotton Bowl will be played between Alabama and Michigan State.
But the real game might be Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry vs. the Spartans defense.
Henry led the nation with 1,986 yards, the most ever by an Alabama player or anyone in the Southeastern Conference. He also ran for 23 touchdowns, most in the country, most in school history, and tying the SEC record. Those great stats helped him win the Heisman Trophy, Doak Walker Award, and other honors.
“I don’t think you can specifically stop a guy like that,” Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun said at Cotton Bowl Media Day. “You have to try to slow him down and minimize his big plays. You know, Henry didn’t win the Heisman by chance. He is a great back and he’s going to do everything within his power to win that game.”
Michigan State’s defense is built to stop the run. They allow only 113.1 yards rushing per game, ninth-fewest in the country. They gave up only 14 rushing touchdowns in 13 games, and none in the last 10 quarters.
“They’re very physical, very good at what they do and they play very tough,” Henry said. “We’ve got to just run effectively, be consistent, play physical and help the team win.”
Henry has been great against great teams. He averaged 180.1 yards over seven games against ranked schools.
Overall, he’s run for at least 100 yards nine times and even had four 200-yard games. The only other SEC players ever to have that many 200-yard games in a single season are two of the best in the history of college football: Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson.
“He’s one of those guys you’ve got to tackle low,” Spartans defensive lineman Joel Heath said. “You’ve got to stop him before he picks up momentum and speed. He’s not only big and physical and strong, he’s also quick.”
But, Heath added, Michigan State has big, strong and quick players, too.
“We have some extreme athletes,” Heath said. “I think that’s been the biggest thing for us — having guys who make plays. We play loose, we play crazy, we play active. It’s really good.”
The Cotton Bowl is a national semifinal. Whichever team wins will go to the national championship game against the winner of Clemson vs. Oklahoma. That's enough motivation.
Still, the Spartans defenders are extra fired up more by the challenge of facing Henry.
“As a natural competitor, you want to play against the best,” Calhoun said. “We look forward to playing against the Heisman winner. I think it’ll be special for us as a program and it’ll be special for us as a defensive line because we’ll see how we match up.”
Said Spartans linebacker Riley Bullough, “He’s a tremendous back, they’re a tremendous team and this game is a huge platform. So it’s going to be extremely exciting.”
Photo: Brett Davis/AP