Big Ten: Marquis Maze

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron just grew up a bit.

Can Penn State's quarterbacks answer?

McCarron, making his first career road start in a very tough environment, made several clutch throws on an 11-play, 69-yard touchdown drive. He showed he can thread the needle and got a boost from Marquis Maze, who made a terrific grab over safety Nick Sukay. The sophomore had to gain a lot of confidence from the drive.

Penn State, meanwhile, is using its second quarterback as Matthew McGloin entered the game late in the first quarter. The Lions must find a way to stretch Alabama's defense, which could be next to impossible. They also need to pressure McCarron and get their hands on his passes.

Alabama leads 7-3 at the start of the second quarter.

Capital One Bowl keys for Spartans

December, 30, 2010
12/30/10
11:15
AM ET
Here are three keys for Michigan State in its Capital One Bowl showdown against Alabama:

1. Run to set up the play-action: Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins has had time to get healthy and can do some damage in the play-action pass game. But to help Cousins, Michigan State must establish the run with Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. The Spartans' ground game struggled in the second half of Big Ten play, although it looked decent in the regular-season finale at Penn State.

2. Special teams: Arguably no team in the country has made more critical plays on special teams than the Spartans. From "Little Giants" to "Mousetrap" to Denicos Allen's blocked punt against Purdue, Michigan State has stepped up in the kicking game. Alabama is dangerous in the return game but Michigan State could have the edge on special teams.

3. Make plays in the secondary: The Spartans' defensive backs have been playmakers all season, as the four starters boast a combined 12 interceptions and 30 pass deflections. Alabama will try to attack downfield with Julio Jones and Marquis Maze, and it's important for the Spartans' cornerbacks to limit damage and get their hands on the ball. Like many games, the Capital One Bowl could come down to turnovers, so the MSU secondary will be a major factor one way or another.
Let's take a quick look at the featured non-BCS bowl of New Year's Day, as co-Big Ten champion Michigan State takes on defending national champion Alabama.

WHO TO WATCH: Michigan State linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Few linebacker tandems in Big Ten history have been as productive as Jones and Gordon, who have combined for 784 career tackles. The pair will be tested by Alabama standout running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Michigan State needs sound tackling and good angles from Nos. 53 and 43 to contain the Tide ground game.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Spartans' improved secondary against Alabama's receivers. Arguably no position group in the Big Ten made a bigger one-year turnaround than Michigan State's secondary, which helped the Spartans tie for 11th nationally in interceptions with 17. Michigan State's defensive backs will be tested by Alabama star wideout Julio Jones and solid No. 2 option Marquis Maze. Big plays from the secondary have fueled the Spartans' success this season, and Michigan State needs more of them in the bowl game.

WHY TO WATCH: There are plenty of reasons, including Alabama coach Nick Saban going up against his former team and his former assistant in Mark Dantonio. As Dantonio told me earlier this week, this is the chance for Michigan State to "measure up" to an elite opponent after getting snubbed from a BCS bowl. The Spartans have upgraded their program in recent years, but they're 0-3 in bowl games under Dantonio. This game provides an excellent opportunity to cap a special season.

PREDICTION: Alabama 27, Michigan State 23. I'm curious to see how motivated Alabama will be for the game, but the Tide still boast a bunch of talent on both sides of the ball. Michigan State will be ready and certainly could pull off the win, but Alabama's offense boasts too many weapons. It'll be close and entertaining, but Saban and the Tide win.
It has been an unforgettable year for Mark Dantonio both on and off the field. Michigan State's fourth-year coach guided the Spartans to an 11-1 record and their first Big Ten championship since 1990. He also worked his way back from a heart attack in mid September and made several of the season's most memorable play calls.

Dantonio and the Spartans wrap up their season Jan. 1 in the Capital One Bowl against defending national champion Alabama. The game serves as a reunion of sorts for Dantonio, who opposes Nick Saban, his former boss at Michigan State. But most of all, Michigan State has a chance to "measure up," Dantonio said.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMark Dantonio sees facing Alabama in the Capital One Bowl as both a great challenge and a great opportunity for his program.
I caught up with Dantonio earlier today.

Here's the first part of my interview. Part II will appear Wednesday morning.

What has been the focus of your preparation for this game?

Mark Dantonio: We try to have a different focus every day, and our first focus when we got down [to Orlando] was to refocus and get back to work. We've got to measure up, we've got to measure up to Alabama. In a lot of ways, we're a football team that has come on this year. Alabama's a football team that had come on a couple years ago and was the No. 1-ranked team and the defending champion and [had] the defending Heisman Trophy winner. And we're a team that wasn't in the Top 25 early on. We're a team that has raised our play as the season went along. So we've got to be able to measure up to that football team that we're playing. It's a great challenge, a great opportunity as well.

It seemed like your players had no letdown about not making a BCS bowl. Was that you reinforcing it to them or the players realizing on their own what's at stake?

MD: I think it was mutual. We talked all year long about how our focus was to win the Big Ten championship. In a normal year, an 11-1 [overall record], a 7-1 [conference record] is going to win the Big Ten championship outright. From my perspective, from our players' perspective, the main thing is we are champions of this conference and we want to represent. That's why we talk about how we've got to measure up. We have to be emotionally ready coming into this football game. It's so important that you not be flat, that you not let Disney World and everything else around us have us fall asleep and the next thing you know, it's New Year's Day and we're not ready to play emotionally. That was the focus today.

What has it been like for you to spend time with Coach Saban leading up to this game?

MD: It's been good. When you have an opportunity to step back and see someone who's had a direct impact on your career, it's always good to spend time together again. I spent five years of my life as his secondary coach, so we worked very closely in that area. It was good just to talk to him, whether it's about recruiting or about the families or whether it's just about things. I had an opportunity on Sunday morning to spend about 20 minutes with him, so that's been a big positive for me personally.

He's been a mentor to me as a football coach. When I look at what we do and how we do things, organizationally, recruiting, defensively -- even though they may have a different defense now and we may play a different one than we played when we were both at Michigan State -- there's still some common threads there. He has had a direct impact on my career.

Has he had a stronger influence on you as a defensive coach or as a head coach?

MD: I would say as a defensive coach. I worked with Coach Saban from '95-99, so you're going back 11-15 years ago when I was an assistant. As I moved forward in coaching, it was to become a better defensive coach, then a defensive coordinator and then a head coach. So even though we follow a lot of the same things that we did at Michigan State, the biggest impact he's had on me is as a defensive coach and the fundamentals that were really instilled in me and the philosophy. The X's and O's may be a little bit different, but the philosophy in how to do things and the teaching progression and the importance of technique, all those things he influenced me greatly.

You mention defense. What are some of the biggest challenges for your team defensively in this game?

MD: Alabama presents so many different problems for you. Outstanding wide receiver in Julio Jones, 75 catches made. [Marquis] Maze is equally as impressive. They've got a couple other guys who can play very well also. Their running backs, [Trent] Richardson and [Mark] Ingram are outstanding running backs. A little mirror type seasons. Last year, Richardson was hurt early. This year, Ingram was hurt early, but they're both tremendous backs and have game-breaking ability. And then you look at their offensive line: big, physical, a little young in places. And then their quarterback, [Greg] McElroy, throws the ball very effectively, 70 percent completion ratio, and an outstanding leader. He does a great job leading his football team offensively. They'll be a challenge to stop. We've got to eliminate the big plays and force some turnovers and play well in certain situations.

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