“Well, Coker, he's a game manager. He does a great job. Talking defensively what we want to do is stop the run. That's kind of what we want to do each and every week, especially this week going against Derrick Henry and that Alabama offensive line. So, we feel like if we can take away the run as best we can and put the game in Coker's hand to throw it, you know, that's what we really want to do.”
— Michigan State junior linebacker Riley Bullough on Dec. 27
ARLINGTON, Texas — The above quote represents the most polite way a defender can say that he thinks his team’s best chance to win a game is to put it in the hands of the opposing quarterback. And if Michigan State’s goal was to make Alabama fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Coker beat them in the Cotton Bowl, then the Spartans succeeded mightily. They held Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Derrick Henry to 75 rushing yards, his third-lowest output of the season, and placed the burden of moving the offense almost entirely on Coker’s arm.
Coker responded to Michigan State’s dare by combining with the suffocating Bama defense to crush the Spartans 38–0. He completed 25 of 30 attempts for 286 yards with two touchdowns. Coker, as is his custom, took zero credit for his dissection of one of the nation’s best defenses. He deflected most of it to freshman receiver Calvin Ridley, who caught eight passes for 138 yards with two scores. “We’ve just got a lot of athletes on the outside, and Calvin did a great job of getting open and making plays,” Coker said. “He makes things a lot easier on me—a lot easier than it should be. He’s one heck of a player. So are all the other guys out there, man. They just got open and made plays and made me look better than I should have.”
Don’t expect Coker to let those gaudy statistics go to his head. It would be more surprising if he noticed them at all. On Sunday, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin told a story about a Crimson Tide win earlier this season. Before he sent Coker out to run the Victory formation, Kiffin told Coker to avoid stepping back before taking a knee so he would lose fewer rushing yards. Coker, who may or may not have realized Kiffin was joking, informed his coordinator that he had never even looked at a stat sheet. Kiffin also said Coker plays with an offensive lineman’s mentality, a fact that hasn’t been lost on Alabama’s actual offensive linemen. “I’ve been trying to say it forever,” Alabama senior center Ryan Kelly said. “I’ve never been around a competitor as fierce as he is.”
Coker can now chase a second national championship ring against Clemson on Jan. 11. Unlike some of his teammates, Coker didn’t win his ring in 2012. He won it in ’13 as the redshirt sophomore backup to Jameis Winston at Florida State. Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher has said multiple times that the decision to start Winston over Coker was a difficult one, but Winston’s roll to a Heisman Trophy that season cast doubt on the veracity of those statements. After Thursday, it’s a little easier to see why Fisher stretched that preseason competition into August 2013. Coker earned a bachelor’s degree from Florida State in ’14 and decamped to Tuscaloosa, where Blake Sims beat him out for the starting job. But after winning the job in camp this season and locking it down for good in relief of sophomore Cooper Bateman during a 43–37 loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 19, Coker has earned the respect of his teammates and the trust of his coordinator. He picked up his master’s in December, and now he hopes to have two sets of rings and degrees.
Michigan State players can be forgiven for believing that shutting down Henry would cause Alabama’s offense to grind to a halt. Down the stretch this season, the Tide leaned so heavily on Henry. It was only natural to assume this reliance had something to do with a lack of confidence in the passing game. But inside the Alabama locker room, confidence in Coker’s arm never wavered. He entered Thursday night with 13 completions of 30 or more yards, but Tide players had seen Coker air it out enough in practice to know that, if necessary, Coker could move the offense primarily with the bazooka hanging from his right shoulder. “There’s this Twitter account,” Kelly said. “It’s called @CokerDeepBall. You’ve got to follow it.” Kelly is correct. Here’s a sample …
Alabama’s offense wasn’t moving Thursday before Coker began chucking deep. The Tide gained 47 yards on 15 plays in the first quarter. Henry, who carried 90 times over Alabama’s previous two games, had five carries for 15 yards in the first. He would have gotten the ball more, but when Coker counted nine men in the box on Alabama’s run-pass option plays, the quarterback’s mandate was to throw—usually a bubble screen. And it seemed as if the Tide might try to bubble screen the Spartans into a punt-for-punt death match when, finally, Alabama’s coaches unleashed Coker’s cannon midway through the second quarter. “When you catch them in a certain coverage—which we had caught them in before—their safeties end up having to cover a guy in the slot,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We had one open before, and I just said we’re going to go back to that and make their safeties cover our guys in the slot. The next time we did it, that’s when we hit the big play. I think it was a big momentum swing.”
On the play Saban referenced, Ridley lined up on the right hash. Sure enough, the cornerback picked up Alabama senior receiver Richard Mullaney, who had lined up wide. This left Spartans junior safety Demetrious Cox on Ridley, who in his first year at Alabama has picked up where fellow south Florida native Amari Cooper left off. A safety should never be left by himself with Ridley, but Cox was stuck. Coker faked a handoff, dropped back and launched a 50-yard rocket that hit Ridley in stride. Cox hauled down Ridley at the one-yard line, and that throw set up a one-yard Henry touchdown that broke the scoreless stalemate.
In the third quarter, with Alabama leading by 24, Ridley lined up in the slot again. Once again, Cox found himself alone with the most athletic receiver in the stadium. Once again, Coker faked a handoff. Once again, Coker threw a rope. This time, Ridley hauled it in for a 50-yard touchdown.
Cox admitted his shock that Coker was more than the game manager he had been painted as leading up to the Cotton Bowl. “We knew he was a good quarterback; he was gonna manage the game for them. But he went 25 for 30 or something like that,” Cox said. “So, he’s a very accurate quarterback. His deep ball was a lot more accurate than we had previously assumed. Props to him, he’s a really good player.”
The Spartans made those assumptions about Coker because he hadn’t been asked to win a game with his arm. That didn’t mean he couldn’t—only that he hadn’t been given the chance to try. As Robert Neyland, Woody Hayes and Darrell Royal liked to remind everyone, three things can happen when a team passes the ball, and two of them are bad. Considering Henry’s ability to rack up yardage and the Alabama defense’s ability to suffocate its competition, it would have been silly to ask Coker to win a game through the air unless it was absolutely necessary. Thursday, with Michigan State stoning Henry and a playoff semifinal locked in a punt-fest, it became absolutely necessary. “He takes advantage of what the defense gives him,” Alabama senior receiver ArDarius Stewart said of Coker. “That’s one of the best things he has in his game. He doesn’t force anything and just lets the game come to him.”
When the game came to him in the most important contest of his life, Coker took control and broke it open. “For him being a senior, and just how far he’s come, his journey, it’s awesome for him to play like that on a big stage,” Alabama left guard Ross Pierschbacher said. “We knew he had it in him the whole time.”