Lawrence Thomas and a few of his Michigan State teammates tuned in last Saturday night to see Alabama’s Derrick Henry win the Heisman Trophy. When Henry heard his name called and all 6-foot-3, 240 pounds of him stood to accept his award on the stage in New York, the Michigan State players got exactly what they wanted.
Thomas, a senior defensive lineman, and the rest of the Spartans defense will line up against a Heisman Trophy winner for the second straight year after facing Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in 2014. Getting a chance to line up against the most outstanding player in the country plays right into the underdog role Thomas and his teammates cling to so often.
“We just love the hype and love being underdogs and others saying what people are going to do to us,” he said. “We live for those moments. We got excited when he won the Heisman.”
Slowing down Henry is a must for Michigan State if its hopes to upset No. 2 Alabama in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on New Year’s Eve and advance to the national championship game. The powerful runner has accounted for nearly 40 percent of Alabama’s offense during the 2015 season. He rushed for more than 200 yards in four of the last six regular season games of the year. He came up 11 yards shy of 200 in the SEC title game against Florida, but still did just enough to pass Herschel Walker for most single-season rushing yards in conference history.
Henry, much like Alabama’s entire offense, pounds opponents into submission. He had 90 combined carries in the Tide’s last two games. Thomas said he expects the semifinal matchup to be “a fistfight.” Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel has warned his team that to stand a chance against Henry, you have to be willing to go toe-to-toe with him for all 15 rounds.
“It has to be our mindset that we are going to need to want to tackle and want to tackle physical every single snap,” Tressel said. “With a big man, you can see as the year progressed and as his game progressed that people have started thinking twice about wanting to throw their body around.”
Michigan State’s veterans on defense got their first taste of long days against a physical back on the Spartans' scout team when Le’Veon Bell was still in school. This week, as bowl preparation begins, Michigan State has been using bigger players like sophomore Gerald Holmes, arguably its most physical back, and freshman linebacker Tyriq Thompson (6-1, 230 pounds) to try to simulate Henry’s size.
The Spartans have faced power backs in recent years, but had trouble thinking of any of them that stack up to Henry. He sets himself apart, they say, because of how often the ball is in hands and how he never seems to wear down.
Henry carried the ball 339 times for the Tide this year. That’s 20 more than fellow Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey from Stanford, the only other player in the country with more than 300 carries this season. His heavy volume was met with heavy production. His 1,986 rushing yards outpaced every back in the country by at least 100 yards, and his 23 touchdowns on the ground are also the nation’s best output.
“He’s a tremendous athlete,” defensive lineman Joel Heath said. “If you just to continue to chop at him like he chops at you, I think it gives you an opportunity to slow him down. In general, a tremendous athlete and we have to make sure we’re tackling and executing everything we do in our scheme to get him down.”
While Michigan State players were sizing up Henry on television, head coach Mark Dantonio got his first in-person look at the Alabama star at a different spot on the awards circuit. Dantonio said he saw Henry at the College Football Awards Show in Atlanta and the back’s size made an immediate impression.
Henry was the first player Dantonio mentioned before he even fielded a question at a media day news conference this week. He’ll likely remain the team’s top priority through the very last play of their matchup in Dallas.