By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 1, 2016
Faced with the task of stopping Alabama’s balanced, efficient offense, Michigan State made the understandable call to sell out to stop Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry and force Alabama to put the game in QB Jake Coker’s hands.
Three hours later, Michigan State coaches were asking for a mulligan.
The Spartans did probably the best job of neutralizing Henry that any opponent had done in 2015. Henry finished with just 75 yards on 20 carries, a 3.8-yard average. But he still scored two touchdowns on the ground, which gave him sole possession of the SEC single-season rushing TD record, and put him over the 2,000-yard mark for the year.
Meanwhile, Jake Coker had the game of his life.
Coker was nearly flawless, completing 25 of his 30 passes (83.3%) for 286 yards and 2 touchdowns, both to WR Calvin Ridley. He also hit Ridley on a bomb to the 1-yard line that set up Henry’s first rushing touchdown.
It was quite the night for the senior Coker, who had been given second billing behind Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield heading into the College Football Playoff. The other three men were seen as some kind of multi-headed, mythical quarterback hydra, each more powerful than the last. Coker was cast as a pretender, a placeholder, a guy who existed only to take snaps from Ryan Kelly, turn around and hand them repeatedly to Henry.
Instead, it was Cook that looked out of place in this game. Alabama held Cook to a completion percentage under the halfway mark, he was shut out of the end zone and he threw two interceptions, the first ending up as the key play of the game.
Threatening the Alabama end zone at the end of the first half, Cook, who had recently completed a pass over CB Cyrus Jones, decided to test Jones on a sideline route in the end zone. But the pass was underthrown, and Jones had correctly deduced the route from the snap. He easily intercepted the ball, which killed the Spartan drive and sent Alabama into the half up 10-0. Alabama then got the ball to start the second half, and before Cook could take another snap, Alabama drove the length of the field, finishing the drive with a short TD pass from Coker to Ridley. Michigan State’s hopes were snuffed out at that moment.
Between Alabama’s efficient, pick-your-poison offense and a defense with a front seven that could legitimately move up to the pros together as a unit, Michigan State really had no chance. The Spartans clearly weren’t in Alabama’s league athletically, and Alabama’s defensive front so completely dominated the line of scrimmage, there was no way to take any heat off Cook. Alabama held the Spartans to 29 yards on 26 carries, and Michigan State was a combined 5-of-19 (26.3%) on third and fourth downs.
With the victory, Alabama does what it could not accomplish in 2014 – it moved to the finals of the College Football Playoff and will face the second-most talented team of the four semifinalists, Clemson. Alabama has more overall talent than the Tigers, but Clemson is a dynamic team with a solid defense and features a quarterback much more capable of making trouble for Alabama’s front four. As for Michigan State, it marks the second time in five years that Alabama has sent the Spartan program back to the drawing board to look for answers.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Michigan State:
1. Spartans lost the trench battle – not unexpected, but the degree to which it was lost was shocking. Michigan State’s offensive line features an NFL-ready center and good prospects at both tackle positions and at one guard slot. Alabama made them look like high schoolers. It wasn’t unexpected that the Crimson Tide’s defensive line would control this matchup, but Alabama wasn’t supposed to dominate nearly every snap. Michigan State had just three runs over five yards, and two of them came from a backup quarterback and a wide receiver, respectively. In pass protection, Michigan State allowed four sacks. Alabama got two other tackles for loss, recorded a QB hurry, broke up 8 passes and tipped at least 2 more at the line of scrimmage. Connor Cook never got comfortable, the Spartan running game never got out of the starting box and as a result, Michigan State’s offense stalled. On the flip side, the Spartan defensive line recorded 3 QB hurries, but only 2 sacks and 1 pass tipped at the line.
2. Lane Kiffin called one of his best games as UA’s offensive coordinator. Kiffin’s performance was aided greatly by Jake Coker’s hot hand, but part of the reason for Coker’s success was Kiffin putting him in position to seize it. From the outset, Alabama was determined to press its speed advantage against Michigan State’s slower linebackers. The jet sweeps to ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley were there to prove a point, more than anything else. When Kiffin shifted gears to the inside power running game and baited the safeties to come down to help, that’s when Alabama finally went up top to Ridley for a long TD pass and another throw down to the 1-yard line. Kiffin has taken heat often (and rightfully so) for getting too cute with his strategy, but Thursday night was a prime example of how he’s able to manipulate the game to his advantage when he’s at his best.
3. Jake Coker may have been the game MVP, but Cyrus Jones was just as important. We struggled to say whether this was Jones’ best game ever as a Crimson Tider, but it’s certainly top five if not No. 1 on the list. The interception at the end of the first half was the play of the game and set the tone for the whipping that followed. Jones was matched up against the stellar Aaron Burbridge all night; Burbridge caught 5 passes for 39 yards and wasn’t a factor. And then there was Jones’ bob-and-weave act on a 57-yard punt return that thoroughly broke the Spartans’ spirit. Jones has drawn the toughest assignments each week all year and was snubbed for postseason all-SEC honors, so it was good to see him make his critics eat their words in a dominating performance Thursday night.
4. ArDarius Stewart, O.J. Howard found their way onto the stat sheet in big ways. Stewart has had a knack for making key big plays this year against Alabama’s biggest rivals. Against Michigan State, he wasn’t the featured receiver, but he got eight offensive touches and made the most of his work. Stewart was also a key blocker on several other plays. O.J. Howard caught 3 passes for 59 yards, including a 41-yard, over-the-shoulder catch that was his best as an Alabama player to date. The whole offense can’t be just about Derrick Henry and Calvin Ridley. Stewart’s ability to embrace a supporting role and Howard’s sure-handedness when it counted were as much a part of this win as the bigger plays on the stat sheet.
5. Alabama’s attitude is taking the team to Glendale. Each team, every year, is different, and this team is one of the most blue-collar in Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa. It’s odd to describe the 2015 Alabama team in such a way, given the number of highly-recruited athletes on the team and the amount of superstar depth on defense, but it’s true. This is a team playing with a purpose. It will be interesting to see how Alabama matches up, from an emotional standpoint, against a Clemson team whose coach doesn’t know the meaning of the adjective “even-keeled.” But this Alabama team has come to define the concept of playing with a singular pulse and having a singular focus. When defensive back Tony Brown found trouble during bowl prep – sources told TideFans.com that he was involved in a skirmish with another defensive player in practice – the team’s leadership council voted to send him home. Brown will likely be back – Ryan Anderson and Dillon Lee were once sent home from the Orange Bowl; both played key roles in Alabama’s victory over Michigan State – but his suspension illustrates the business-only approach this team has self-elected to take. It’s an attitude that has already allowed Alabama to rebound from the early-season loss to Ole Miss and defeat, if not dominate every opponent in its path since.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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