ARLINGTON, Texas — Alabama earned a berth in its fourth national title game since 2009 by crushing Michigan State on Thursday in the Cotton Bowl. Here are three thoughts from the Crimson Tide’s 38–0 College Football Playoff win.
1. Quarterback Jake Coker hadn’t previously had to win a game for Alabama, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t do it.
Michigan State’s defense suppressed Crimson Tide junior tailback Derrick Henry early, limiting the Heisman Trophy winner to 38 yards on 13 carries in the first half. That meant if Alabama was going to score, the Tide would need to rely on Coker’s arm. The fifth-year senior rose to the occasion in the biggest game of his career, completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards with two touchdowns despite facing a relentless pass rush. Coker’s performance should give Alabama confidence as it prepares to face Clemson’s ferocious front seven in the national title game on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz.
The Crimson Tide and Spartans had spent a quarter and a half trading punts on Thursday night when Coker launched a 50-yard rope that hit freshman receiver Calvin Ridley in stride. That throw set up a one-yard Henry touchdown run. Later in the quarter, Coker tossed a 41-yarder to junior tight end O.J. Howard that set up a 47-yard Adam Griffith field goal.
Alabama tried to attack Michigan State on the perimeter early, but a barrage of bubble screens left the Tide in terrible down-and-distance situations. Bama broke the game open when Coker began attacking vertically. On the Tide’s first play of the second half, Coker evaded pressure and found senior wideout Richard Mullaney for a 26-yard gain. Coker capped the drive with a 50-50 ball that Ridley won on the left edge of the end zone for a six-yard touchdown. Later in the third, Coker hit a wide-open Ridley down the middle for a 50-yard score.
2. Alabama’s front seven continued to dominate.
The Spartans learned what the programs in the SEC already know; attempting to move the ball against Alabama is usually a fruitless endeavor. Michigan State won tough games against Ohio State and Iowa by not giving up on the run game, but the Spartans never could break through against the Tide’s massive front. To make matters worse, Alabama’s pass rush gave senior quarterback Connor Cook little time to operate. Defensive end Jonathan Allen and rush linebackers Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams combined for four sacks.
The only time the Spartans threatened was on their final possession of the first half. Cook completed five of six passes for 71 yards to get Michigan State to the Alabama 10-yard line. But on first-and-goal, Cook threw into double coverage and was intercepted by senior cornerback Cyrus Jones with five seconds remaining. In the third quarter, Jones added to Michigan State’s misery with a 57-yard punt return for a touchdown.
3. Even though its season ended in embarrassing fashion, Michigan State took another huge step this year.
We keep writing off the Spartans and assuming their time in college football’s elite ranks is over, but Michigan State keeps putting together excellent seasons.
Michigan State has won at least 11 games in five of the past six years. They broke through and won a Rose Bowl after the 2013 campaign, and in ’15 they reached college football’s final four. Can they take the next step over the next few seasons and advance to the national title game? That will be difficult with Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, but Mark Dantonio’s team has only lost twice in Big Ten play since ’13.