Commentary

Five keys to the Alamo Bowl

Updated: January 1, 2010, 2:31 PM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

Amid all the controversy this week in San Antonio, which included the suspension and then firing of Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, there's still a game to be played.

Ruffin McNeill is the interim coach and has been charged with getting the team ready to play Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl on Saturday. Texas Tech has also altered the duties of some of its assistant coaches for the game. Several players have spoken glowingly about McNeill, who was hired in 2000 at Tech and became defensive coordinator in 2007.

To get you ready, here are five keys to the game:

Dealing with distractions

It's the top storyline of this game and a challenge for both teams.

As much as it can, Texas Tech must put Leach's firing behind it and focus on Michigan State. It'll have to do so with a new coach and without Leach's offensive genius. The players have to try to use the entire episode as motivation and go out and play a strong game.

Michigan State has suspended 14 players for the game, most of that the result of an on-campus incident in November following a team banquet. So while Texas Tech deals with a huge upheaval in the coaching staff, the Spartans must figure out how to deal with some changes in personnel. That includes losing two starting wide receivers, which won't help the passing game.

The team that does the best job of putting the distractions behind it for one game has a huge advantage.

Texas Tech passing game vs. Michigan State secondary

On paper, this looks like a big edge for the Red Raiders. Texas Tech, as you might expect, has the No. 2 passing offense in the country at 380.67 yards per game and 35 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. They've done it with three quarterbacks seeing time. Taylor Potts has played most of the season, throwing for 3,068 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Steven Sheffield has been quite efficient, with a 177.5 quarterback rating. He threw for 1,131 yards with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. Even Seth Doege has played some, throwing for 369 yards on 61 attempts.

Michigan State's pass defense is ranked 103rd in the nation. It doesn't help that Chris Rucker, a starting cornerback, is suspended. The Spartans must find a way to get some pressure and contain as best they can in the secondary. Michigan State is No. 2 in the Big Ten in sacks, so they have done a nice job of getting to the quarterback.

The running game

That might seem strange as a key to the game for two offenses who have thrown the ball with success. While Texas Tech's passing game gets all the publicity because of its lofty national ranking and reputation, Michigan State is no slouch. It is No. 1 in the Big Ten in passing behind quarterback Kirk Cousins.

But running the ball could give both teams a critical second dimension and open up even more room in the passing game. It's especially big for Michigan State. It appears Texas Tech has the advantage in the air. So chewing the clock, shortening the game and keeping the Red Raiders' offense on the sidelines as much as possible is one way to combat that.

Neither team has run the ball particularly well this season. Texas Tech is last in the Big 12 on the ground at 81 yards per game. Michigan State is seventh in the Big Ten at 136 yards per game.

Larry Caper and Edwin Baker should both carry the ball for Michigan State. Texas Tech has used three running backs, led by Baron Batch.

Kickoff returns

When it comes to special teams, one area to watch Saturday is kickoff returns. Both teams have quick-strike capability on offense. And neither wants to give up big plays on special teams that make it tougher on the defenses.

Both teams have had success returning kickoffs. Michigan State is sixth in the nation in returns at a 26.66 average, and Texas Tech isn't far behind at 24.48 (17th nationally).

Watch for Spartans sophomore Keshawn Martin, who is averaging more than 30 yards per return and has a touchdown. Texas Tech freshman Eric Stephens has also had success returning kicks, with a 25.90 average.

Michigan State has more big-play ability on the kick returns, but both are capable of providing fireworks.

Neither team stands out on punt returns or net punting. The Spartans' kicker, Brett Swenson, is an All-American and has made 18 of 20 field goal attempts. Tech's Matt Williams has made nine of 11.

In the trenches

It's easy to focus on the skill players. But you can't have a good passing game without an offensive line. And you can't stop a prolific offense without a good defensive line.

That sounds so simple, doesn't it? But the reality is, the line of scrimmage can decide this game. Michigan State has to create holes for its running game and protect Cousins as he tries to make things happen despite losing two starting wide receivers to suspensions.

Texas Tech's line must contain an aggressive Michigan State defensive front that was second in the Big Ten in sacks.

Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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