Bulldogs look for big win
Breakdown: Georgia and Michigan State bring top-ranked defense into Monday's battle
Michigan State (10-3) vs. Georgia (10-3)
Monday, Jan. 2, 1 p.m., Raymond James Stadium, Tampa
All indications are that the Georgia-Michigan State meeting in the Outback Bowl won't become one of the offensive track meets that were the norm in the late-December bowl schedule.
Both teams rank in the nation's top five in total defense -- Georgia is third, allowing 268.5 yards per game, while Michigan State is fifth at 272.7 -- and both rank among the national leaders against the run, pass and score, as well.
With two teams so evenly matched on the defensive side, the difference Monday in Tampa, could be which squad plays the toughest and makes the fewest glaring errors.
"You think of big, physical teams and that's what they are across the board, so we have to outmatch them when it comes to physicality, and that's our plan," said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, one of three Tampa natives on Georgia's roster along with tight end Orson Charles and linebacker Ramik Wilson. "We just have to be physical this whole game because they're going to come after us. They're one of the top teams pretty much in every category defensively in their league. They're two plays away from going to the Rose Bowl, so it's going to be a huge challenge for us."
1. Paper tigers?: Despite its 10-game winning streak to close the regular season, Georgia's strength of schedule was the subject of ridicule throughout. The Bulldogs didn't do themselves any favors by losing to three of the four teams they faced that currently occupy spots in the BCS top 25 -- No. 1 LSU, No. 7 Boise State and No. 9 South Carolina. Georgia's only win against a ranked team was against No. 25 Auburn, so beating No. 17 Michigan State would bring some legitimacy to Georgia's record.
2. Avoiding another bowl meltdown: It's difficult to say which bowl loss from last season was more humiliating: Georgia's 10-6 loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl or Michigan State's 49-7 beatdown delivered by Alabama. Regardless, these are two programs that fell face first before entering the offseason a year ago and they don't want to taste a defeat so bitter again.
3. Spartans' bowl history: Michigan State's coaches and players have made it a regular talking point to discuss how important it is to win this game -- and for good reason. Although they are appearing in a school-record fifth straight bowl game, they have lost their last five appearances in a bowl. That ties for the third-longest active bowl losing streak in the country, which is an unsightly mark for a Spartans senior class whose 36 wins since 2008 rank first all-time in the program's 115-year history.
Players to watch
1. Brandon Boykin: Not only does Boykin have to contend with Michigan State receiver B.J. Cunningham along with the rest of the secondary, the senior cornerback and return man is chasing history. Boykin, who has yet to break a return for a touchdown this season, is 126 yards shy of becoming the SEC's all-time leader in kickoff return yardage. He'll need one of his best games of the season to get there.
2. Isaiah Crowell: Georgia's running game floundered down the stretch with Crowell sidelined. He says his injured ankle has healed, but will he make a difference against a stout Michigan State defense? The freshman star -- who is 153 yards away from a 1,000-yard season -- could use a strong outing in the finale to endear himself to a Georgia fanbase that soured on him in the second half of the season.
3. Bacarri Rambo: The Bulldogs have had juniors use a strong bowl performance propel them to an early entry into the NFL draft -- see Charles Johnson in the 2006 Chick-fil-A Bowl -- and Rambo could use such a performance if he wants to skip his senior season. After a seven-interception season, the All-American said the draft advisory board gave him a third-round grade should he leave school early. A standout performance against the Spartans might help his cause.
1. QB Kirk Cousins: The senior quarterback already holds many of the program's career passing records and is its winningest quarterback in history, but he hasn't won a bowl game. Cousins and the Spartans suffered a humiliating loss to Alabama in last season's Capital One Bowl and would love to end the program's bowl losing streak against a respected opponent.
2. WR B.J. Cunningham: The senior receiver has scored nine touchdowns in the last four games and is only two behind Charles Rogers' program record of 27 career touchdown catches. Georgia's defensive plan typically starts with slowing down an opponent's running game, but the Bulldogs will have to keep Cunningham in check, as well.
3. DT Jerel Worthy: Like Rambo, Michigan State's All-America defensive tackle is weighing his NFL options. Worthy will be one of the tougher interior linemen the Bulldogs have faced -- and that's saying something considering they last played a nasty bunch from LSU. If the Bulldogs can't keep him from doing damage, they might have a long afternoon on offense.
Georgia's running game vs. Michigan State's front seven
Georgia got by with an ineffective running game at several points in the second half of the season, but that finally caught up with the Bulldogs when they faced an elite LSU defense in the SEC championship game. Michigan State's run defense is not in LSU's class, but the Spartans are allowing only 104.3 rushing yards per game -- which ranks 12th in the nation. Georgia averaged only 120 yards per game in its final three games and will likely need far better production than that to put away the Spartans.
By the numbers
1. 404. With 404 career points, Georgia senior kicker Blair Walsh -- the FBS active career scoring leader -- is five points away from matching former Bulldog Billy Bennett's SEC career scoring record.
2. 0-4. Mark Dantonio is the first coach to lead Michigan State to five consecutive bowls, but he's 0-4 in bowl games since taking over the program in 2007.
3. 5-8-1. Michigan State is 5-8-1 all-time against SEC opponents, including 0-2 against Georgia. Four of the Spartans' five wins came against Kentucky (2-2) and Mississippi State (2-1-1).
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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