DEEP IMPACT

January 11, 2016

Alabama finally allowed its underestimated quarterback, Jake Coker, to let it rip

FROM THE opposite side of the field, Alabama sophomore receiver ArDarius Stewart had the perfect view of the whistling 50-yard spiral Jake Coker threw to freshman wideout Calvin Ridley that turned the Cotton Bowl from a punting competition into a blowout. "It came out so pretty," Stewart says. Ridley hauled in the missile midway through the second quarter and raced to the one-yard line to set up the first score in a 38--0 win over Michigan State. To Alabama receivers it resembled hundreds of throws they've seen Coker make at practice. Spartans defenders, however, looked completely unprepared for the air show he was about to put on.

Before last Friday, Michigan State players and coaches had referred to the fifth-year senior as a "game manager," a polite way of saying that he lacked the arm to beat them if they shut down the other skill-position players. It's not surprising that they felt that way; Alabama had relied mainly on Heisman Trophy--winning junior tailback Derrick Henry to carry the offense.

But with the Spartans stuffing the running lanes to slow Henry (2.9 yards a carry in the first half), the Crimson Tide needed Coker to make plays downfield. They started by attacking the perimeter with bubble screens while coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin waited for Michigan State to run a defense that required a safety to cover Ridley in the slot. As soon as the Spartans did, Kiffin called for Coker to unleash a throw that has its own Twitter feed: @CokerDeepBall. (A sample post: "The phrase 'Throw up a prayer' originated when jake scribbled a note on a football and threw it to God.") In the third quarter Alabama would use the same mismatch for a 50-yard Coker-to-Ridley touchdown.

For the day, Coker completed 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two TDs in outdueling the more heralded Connor Cook (19 of 39 for 210 yards and two interceptions). "They took away Derrick, and we had to open it up," Tide senior receiver Richard Mullaney says. "Jake was ready. I'm not shocked by it." Neither was Saban: "He's not a selfish guy at all. He never complains about [how] we don't throw it down the field enough. He just tries to do what he can do for his team. I think that's why he was elected captain and why he's respected so much."

If Coker goes deep against Clemson, he might manage Alabama to its fourth national championship in seven years.

PHOTOGREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDNEW COKER The Spartans dared Coker to beat them, and he did, completing 25 of 30, including a couple of 50-yarders.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)