Bill Clark is normally a pretty big channel-surfer when it comes to the New Year’s Day bowl games. No sooner does one game fade to a commercial break and he’s on to the next one. But this time the Jacksonville State coach watched the entire Rose Bowl with the intensity of a film-study session.
This time he had a vested interest. His Gamecocks open the 2014 season at Michigan State, and he didn’t miss one snap of the Spartans’ come-from-behind 24-20 win over Stanford in the 100th edition of the granddaddy of all bowls.
“I watched it pretty closely and all I can say is ‘Wow,’” Clark said Thursday. “Were they not impressive? It gives us something to work for, for sure.”
What the Gamecocks are expected to face in Spartan Stadium Aug. 30 is a Michigan State team with some holes to fill — particularly in the No. 2-ranked defense in the FBS — but for the most part remains intact.
The Spartans lose one receiver and three linemen among their starters on offense, but those losses could be mitigated by the fact they rotated as many as nine players on the line this year and receiver Bennie Fowler could receive a sixth year of eligibility. Quarterback Connor Cook returns after throwing for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns against the Cardinal.
Defensively, they will lose six starters who combined for more than 1,100 tackles, more than 40 sacks and 21 interceptions over the last three seasons. But even with their best player suspended for the game, the Spartans defense held Stanford to 159 yards in the final three quarters, didn’t allow an offensive touchdown after the game’s first drive and the suspended star’s replacement made the fourth-down stop with 1:46 to play that ended the Cardinal’s final push.
It was Michigan State’s first Rose Bowl win since its last trip to the game in 1988.
Put it all together and it’s a whole lot different team than the one Clark remembers watching get waxed by Alabama in the 2011 Capital One Bowl.
“I think they’ve really changed offensively,” he said. “They just looked like they could do a lot more than they used to do from a spread standpoint. You wish they were three yards and a cloud of dust, but no such luck.
“Give them credit, they looked like they’ve expanded their offensive playbook and (defensively) how they pinch their corners, which we do. They’re going to make you complete balls outside, which is what we try to do. It’s a little scary from a defensive standpoint.”
The team JSU takes into East Lansing will look much the same as the one that reached the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs in Clark’s first season as coach and should be prime for another playoff run.
The Gamecocks basically lose their linebacker corps, an All-American kicker and a couple offensive linemen, but return their skill players and are in the process of adding several SEC transfers to help fill the gaps. With only the FCS Championship Game left to be played, the Gamecocks rank 25th nationally in total offense, 12th in rushing and 20th in scoring. They are sixth in pass efficiency defense.
Both teams playing in that Aug. 30 game will be starting the season with legitimate national championship aspirations.
The key element for the Gamecocks will be how well they come back together.
“I want to see Day One what is our chemistry,” Clark said. “We had some seniors last year and did some good stuff, but there were a few of them. We’re going to have a big group (this year) and I’m going to challenge them who we’re going to be.
“We went around with a chip on our shoulder and had something to prove; do you still feel that way? I think that’s the type people they are. They have to determine who we’re going to be this year. How hungry are they?”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.