ORLANDO, Fla. - Kirk Cousins did not know it, but he has had an interested, supportive observer in Tuscaloosa, Ala., all season, in the person of his Saturday counterpart, Crimson Tide quarterback Greg McElroy[db].
"I have followed his career," McElroy said during Thursday's press conference at Rosen Plaza Hotel, "starting last year because he was just kind of this unknown guy. He wasn't expected to win the job last year (against [db]Keith Nichol) and he kind of came in and burst onto the scene and did a great job for them last year and it has carried over to this year."
McElroy is a quarterback known for avoiding mistakes and playing carefully while not asked to push the ball vertically a lot by his coaches. He doesn't have the arm strength or quick-rip release of Cousins.
"But he has a National Championship ring and I want one of those," Cousins said.
McElroy was a slim, middle tier, three-star recruit of average height when he came out of powerful Southlake Carroll High School in Texas, five years ago. He signed with Mike Shula, Nick Saban's predecessor at Alabama. He visited Colorado and North Carolina before committing to the Tide. Not exactly a super blue chipper.
Cousins wasn't a chipper at all. He visited Western Michigan and Toledo before the new head coach at Michigan State, Mark Dantonio, heeded the advice of holdover backfield coach Dan Enos, watched film on Cousins and decided to go after the strong-armed, bible-toting, 4.0 student from the state's west coast.
Now, Cousins and McElroy have risen near the top of the college football landscape at their position. McElroy led Alabama to a 13-0 record and the National Title as a junior in 2009. Cousins piloted Michigan State to its first 11-win season in school history this year, as a junior.
McElroy completed his degree at Alabama last summer, with a 3.86 grade point average, and is a common candidate for various academic and leadership awards, and was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship.
"I have to agree," McElroy said, when asked about perceived similarities between himself and Cousins.
The quarterback fraternity is a unique one in sports. These athletes often have so much in common, and watch each other intently, often exchanging words of congratulations and support.
Like golfers, they compete against one another from a distance, watching each others' numbers, but they are never come into direct contact. They're never on the field at the same time. They never lock horns. They can be friends and competitors, simultaneously, in hands-off manner, with respect and no animosity.
At the college level, these fraternal relationships spring up almost overnight, as each program changes starters almost every other year. Last year, as a first-year starter, McElroy took note of Cousins. This year, McElroy watched from afar as Cousins became a champion.
"I have had a chance to watch him on a couple of occasions, and I remember the Northwestern game and a couple of others," McElroy said.
THEY WATCH EACH OTHER
Michigan State's emergence as a Big Ten contender made the Spartans a frequent choice for ESPN's national noon football slot.
"When they are playing in the 11:30 (central time) slot and we are playing in the 7:30 game, I had a chance to watch a lot of Michigan State this year and I just have a lot of respect for him and the way he carries himself and the way he has been able to respond, the way he has taken a huge step forward this year," McElroy said. "I look for him to do the same next year."
Cousins completed 67.5 percent of his passes this year in Michigan State's balanced, pro style attack. He threw 20 TD passes against 9 interceptions.
Michigan State throws downfield more than Alabama, and asks Cousins to make difficult reads and tight throws into narrow windows, on the edge of risk. Sometimes, Cousins is asked to carry the offense, carry the team, such as the comebacks from 17- and 15-point deficits against Northwestern and Purdue.
"They have been down in some games and he has always come back which to me is a great indicator of the quarterback," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said of Cousins. "The guy is a good player. He does a great job throwing the ball. He has been mobile enough to get out of trouble. He is a great leader, you can tell that. He gets them in the right play a lot of times and as a defensive coordinator that is very frustrating. He makes them right more than he makes them wrong. He makes very few mistakes. The guy does a great job of managing the situation he is in. They keep things balanced for him and not get too one-dimensional. He does a great job in play-action."
Cousins ranked No. 4 in the Big Ten in passing yards per game at 225.4, and was fifth in the league in pass efficiency, at 153.5, hurt by the INT numbers pushing double digits.
McElroy piles up big numbers with short, ball-control passing to big, explosive WRs while defenses try to lean forward to stop the Crimson Tide running attack.
He ranked No. 4 in the Southeastern Conference in passing yardage per game at 230.6 and ranked No. 3 in the SEC with a 166.9 rating.
McElroy had 19 TD passes against only 5 INTs this year. Last season, he threw 16 TD passes with only 4 INTs.
"The way he leads and the way he can make decisions and manage the game, he does that as well as anybody in the country," Cousins said of McElroy. "You can see it when you watch them on TV. They have had a lot of success when he has been quarterbacking them. I have a lot of respect for a guy that can lead a team to a National Championship and an undefeated season."
STUDENTS OF THE GAME
In addition to being top-notch students in the classroom, Cousins and McElroy are also model thinkings in the football film room.
"It is a marvel to have a guy that is so into learning the game plan and is so into being focused and understanding and film watching," Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said of McElroy.
Michigan State offensive coordinator Don Treadwell feels the same way about Cousins.
"You can see the growth from just the expansion of the understanding of the entire offense, how it works from the inside-out," Treadwell said of Cousins. "He is kind of what you're looking for when it comes to quarterback. Needless to say, he's a student of the game. He probably watches as much tape, if not more, as his coaches. He is just the ideal gentleman that you want running your program.
"Having said that to begin with, fast forward to this year, he is so much more grounded in understanding all of the intricacies of the offense that he is truly an extension of the coaching staff on the field.
"We have given him a lot more on his plate this year, for him to put us in right checks and that's in both the run game and the pass game, and then we give him some freedom even beyond that at times based on certain game plans. His growth has just been tremendous that way and that has certainly been a big factor for the success we have had this year on offense."
Cousins' numbers don't look much different than last year. He threw the same number of interceptions a year ago, and only one more TD. His completion rate is up 7 percent and he is averaging just 19 more yards per game passing.
But his team has won five more games than a year ago. All involved say that Cousins' improved play, including progress in unseen intangibles, have had an impact on MSU's increased number of wins.
"Quarterback is a process," Cousins said. "It's something where you have never fully arrived. When I first came here as a freshman I had a lot to learn. We always talk a lot as quarterbacks that two things that are very important as far as winning championships: First of all making good decisions. And secondly, managing the game. Those are two things that often get overlooked as far as what a quarterback does but they are actually the most important."
Two years ago when Michigan State faced Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, Dantonio told media the day before the game that he planned to work Cousins in for one or two possessions in the first half, as a means of getting the sophomore some experience, in preparation for the following season. At the time, Cousins was a freshman back-up to then-senior Brian Hoyer.
Cousins completed 4-of-5 passes against the Bulldogs for 36 yards. MSU didn't score on the possession, but Cousins was part of a solid first half for the Spartans, one that ended with MSU leading Georgia 7-6 at halftime. The Bulldogs came back to win behind the arm of NFL first-round draft pick Matthew Stafford, 24-12.
Cousins grew as a QB that day by managing the team and staying out of trouble. In the past two years, the native of Holland, Mich. has grown to the point that he is the one that can create trouble for an opponent.
"It's hard as a freshman, as a sophomore, when you first get here, to make those good decisions and manage the game efficiently and consistently," Cousins said. "I think the biggest thing is I've been more consistent in doing that this year as a second-year starter and my fourth year as being part of this program."
Cousins has thrown just two interceptions in his last 12 quarters, while nursing shoulder, ankle and knee injuries in the last half of the season. He was unable to plant and follow through for the last five or six games of the regular season, and it showed up in flawed mechanics. He threw off his back foot on at least two of his three costly interceptions in MSU's lone loss of the season, on Oct. 30 at Iowa.
Cousins forced a pair of bad interceptions on two of MSU's first three possession at Iowa, one of which was returned for a TD and a quick 17-0 deficit.
Cousins battled back from bad-decision, forced interceptions in the first halves against Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Florida Atlantic to rally the Spartans to victory with sharp second half performances.
He cut down on poor decisions in the second half of the year, while having to learn to manage the pain and debilitating nature of his injuries. He threw only two interceptions in the last 12 quarters of the season, including a highly-efficient 17-of-22 performance for 152 yards in the Big Ten title-clinching victory at Penn State on Nov. 27.
Cousins was held out of practice for the first handful of December practices, as the Spartans focused mostly on technique drills for younger reserves. Cousins says he is healthy now, and is expected to be as physically strong as any point since the Oct. 9 victory at Michigan.
"I took my fair share of hits at time this year," Cousins said. "Part of playing major college football, playing in the Big Ten is it's going to be physical. Our training staff did a great job of getting me ready each week, to be as healthy as possible."
The injuries began piling up against Illinois' physical defensive line during the Spartans' hard-earned 26-6 victory over the Illini on Oct. 16.
"We've pushed through whatever each of us had injury-wise. At the end of the season, against Penn State, my body wasn't quite where I wanted it to be, ideally. But especially that game, our protection was very good and I was able to get through it injury-free. And now with more than a month of time to heal up, I feel very good and ready to go for this game."
McElroy is expecting a sharp performance from his counterpart.
"I know he has had a great week of study against us," McElroy said of Cousins. "What he does against us, I'm sure he is going to do a great job,. I'm sure he has done a great job in preparation and hopefully our defense will be ready for him."
"The guy comes in and takes charge and knows what he is supposed to do," said Alabama middle linebackerDont'a Hightower.
Saban is not a big believer in tallying QB sacks, but instead is a longtime believer in the importance of "affecting" the QB. He is a proponent of trying to create pressure up the middle and press the pocket against conventional passers such as Cousins, with or without getting the tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
Saban coaches his pass rushes to stay in front of the QB, impede his vision and comfort level at all costs, and never get swept behind the QB while going all out for a sack. Look for Alabama to try to bring heat up the middle with A-gap blitzes.
"Hopefully in this game we will get after him, disguise a couple of coverages, get him rattled a little bit and hopefully get him outside of the pocket and outside of his element," said Hightower.
McElroy doens't have to worry about trying to lay a hand on Cousins in battle, other than a handshake after the game.
"I look forward to competing against him on a quarterback level and meeting with him briefly after the game and maybe exchange phone numbers and exchange a text here and there and just wish him the very best in the near future," McElroy said.
Shortly after making that statement, following the Alabama portion of Thursday's press conference, McElroy was headed back to the hotel elevator when he came across Cousins, who was on his way to the podium for the MSU portion of the press conference. They exchanged pleasantries. But they are keeping a lid on the fraternizing for now.
"The first time I've seen him personally was about 10 minutes ago, passing him in the hallway," Cousins said. "I said, 'How you doing?' That was all so far but I'm sure after the game we will exchange hellos. He is obviously a guy I have a lot of respect for."
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