Michigan State defensive coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett talk Cotton Bowl battle with Alabama.

There was no mistaking Michigan State was involved in a heavyweight title fight when they took on Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game. Next is Alabama and if the Spartans thought the Hawkeyes were tough, Nick Saban’s team is an experienced program in games like the Cotton Bowl with a trip to the National Championship game on the line.

Alabama with their several All-Americans and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry looking to pound the ball down the throats of the Michigan State Spartans defense. Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett know the Spartans defense has to be prepared for another physical game as the Crimson Tide will look to wear down the Spartans.

“There’s no doubt with a guy as big as he is (Henry), as fast as he is, as physical as he is, especially when he’s getting the ball potentially 40 times a game, you need to be prepared to play for 60 minutes,” stressed Tressel.  “Really our last few games, we’ve talked about how we need to prepare for a 15-round fight and we need to prepare to take blows and deliver blows right up to the very end, which we did in the Big Ten Championship game.

“That has to be our mind-set.  It has to be our mind-set that we are going to need to want to tackle and want to tackle physical every single snap.

“With a big man, you can see as the year progressing and as his game progressed that people have started thinking twice about wanting to throw their body around.  The mind-set is a start and the second thing is the depth and we feel like we do have a two-deep, pretty much D-line linebacker secondary that we can roll in there so the guys stay fresh mentally and physically.”

Barnett shared the same thought about how the Spartans defense must play physical against a player like Henry.

“It’s a must,” stressed Barnett.  “And that’s how we should alway, not only against those guys, but always; that should be our mind-set, our mentality going into every game.”

One benefit the Spartans should have in Dallas is the return of fifth-year senior R.J. Williamson who should be a much needed help in the Spartans secondary according to Barnett.

“We expect a lot from him (Williamson),” said Barnett.  “He’s a very experienced player on our team and in our secondary.  We did miss him, but it’s good to have him back.”

“He was always involved and engaged in everything we were doing even while he was out, so it’s not like he’s behind on anything and understanding techniques or tweaks or things we have made throughout the course of the year.  We are excited to have him back.  He will contribute heavily in this game.”

For Barnett the chance to earn a trip to the National Championship game at his school could bring his career full circle.

“I never envisioned even coming to Michigan State, not even college football when I was in high school,” he said.  “It wasn’t like it is nowadays where guys are getting recruited as ninth graders and those type of things.  Wasn’t until almost my senior year, where I got a chance to go play college football.  Coming to Michigan State, didn’t know much about Michigan State at the time.  To come here, it has been awesome.  It was a great experience for five years.

“Then to come back, never even anticipated that, ever even being a coach for that matter, so it’s been awesome.  It’s been great, man.  Look forward to it. Back in 1987, or after the ‘88 Rose Bowl, ‘87 season, that ‘88 summer, someone asked me.  I’m going to tell you guys about it.  I made up rap and I was into rap and all that stuff about going to the National Championship.  I shared it with the guys the Rose Bowl year, and now we got a chance to actually possible get it done.”

For Barnett the respect he has for Alabama head coach Nick Saban are right there with his current boss Mark Dantonio.

“The basis of how I coach defensive backs are from Nick,” he said.  “Great defensive back coach.  I learned a lot from him.  The reason why I have this job right now is because of that, because Coach Dantonio and I both speak Sabanism.  That’s how I got the job at the University of Cincinnati initially with Coach Dantonio and been with him ever since.  The basis of my foundational teaching and how I teach is from what he’s taught me in the past.”

As for any flashbacks to the last time the Spartans played the Crimson Tide (2011 Capital One Bowl), Tressel knows the past is in the past.

“They know about the last time we played Alabama,” he said.  “I also think they view it much like we do, which that was a completely different team and we were at a different point in our program in 2010 than we are here in 2015.

“We are excited for the opportunity to show ourselves, as well as everybody else, where this program has come over the past five years.”

The Spartans and Crimson Tide will take the AT&T Stadium turf on Thursday, December 31st with an 8:00 p.m. kickoff scheduled.


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