Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has a lot to prove heading into the 2015 bowl season. One year after his offense finished as the ninth-best unit in the country but failed to deliver against Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, Kiffin gets a second chance at a Big Ten team in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Scrutiny will always follow a coach with the persona Kiffin has created, but winning big games and getting the most productivity out of Tuscaloosa’s top-notch talent will quiet all the critics.
Proximity to criticism is especially intense when you were hand picked by Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban to open up the playbook and make his offense a more vertical attack. The former USC and “cup of coffee” head coach at Tennessee tried to do that last year with the likes of Amari Cooper, one of the best receivers in recent college football memory.
Despite his dominant play in 2014 — enough to make him a Heisman finalist — Cooper played in nine games in which he had fewer than 10 receptions. In seven of those games, he had fewer than 100 receiving yards. Against Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, he was held to just 8 yards per catch, the second-lowest total during his last college season.
The Tide converted just 2 of 12 attempts on third down in the second half. They completely shed their identity as a run-first offense.
They’ll face another Big Ten opponent in this year’s College Football Playoff semifinals in Michigan State — a physical powerhouse on the both sides of the ball, with enough offensive firepower to keep defenses on the field for prolonged periods of time.
Against a very similar 4-3 over defense, Kiffin’s offense will have to find balance to keep the Spartans off guard and establish success in this latest playoff go-around.
Here are five keys for the Alabama offense against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Eve:
5 — Dominate the Line of Scrimmage
This is the biggest key to winning any football game. Against Michigan State, though, controlling the line of scrimmage needs to be taken to another level, especially for offensive units that have any hope of scoring throughout their allotted 60 minutes.
The Spartans have built into their defensive identity an uncanny ability to dominate the point of attack. This is particularly true against teams they can physically match. They held Iowa to just 51 plays on offense, which is 14 below the Hawkeyes’ season average. Iowa, which ran the ball 40 times a game in 2015, was able to muster only 24 rushing attempts.
The Ohio State Buckeyes, for the most part, tried to play with some tempo in 2015. The Spartans held them to 23 fewer offensive plays than their season average when they met in late November. In the same vein, the Spartan defensive line shut down the Buckeye rushing attack and allowed OSU’s rush-heavy offense to produce only 29 rushing plays throughout the game. On the year, the Buckeyes averaged 43 rushing attempts per contest.
Iowa, which averaged 192 rushing yards per game in 2015, was held to just 52 yards on the ground in the Big Ten Championship Game. Ohio State, which averaged 242 rushing yards per contest, was able to muster only 86 yards carrying the football.
The way that Michigan State controls the line of scrimmage is similar to how a championship-level prize fighter attacks a green opponent. The Spartan front seven will put so much pressure on offenses that it slowly starts to fade until it has nothing left in the gas tank in the defining moments of the fight.
Ohio State and Iowa slowly started to lose a step on the field. As the game wore on, they lost sight of the game plan that was drawn up to win.
In the championship rounds, their offenses completely lost the form that put them in position to be championship contenders.
For Alabama to string together enough offense to win this game, its offensive line has to give its heavyweight champion, Derrick Henry, an opportunity to land consecutive blows. He has to have moments when he can knock the Spartan defense against the ropes.
The Iowa rushing attack couldn’t do it. Ezekiel Elliott had the worst showing of his college football career in his attempt to go toe-for-toe with the Michigan State front seven.
Now 2015’s Heisman winner will have his chance in the squared circle against a defense that has given up just 113 rushing yards per game. Henry has had four games this season in which his rushing totals didn’t meet that average.
Only one has come in the final seven weeks of the season.
During that time, he’s had four 200-plus-yard games. He came close to making it five in the SEC Championship Game with his 189-yard performance against Florida. Since October 10, he’s averaged 31 carries a game.
Like any good challenger, the Alabama offense needs to stick to its strengths in order to win. Derrick Henry has been the identity of Bama’s offense all season long. In order to win the fight in the trenches, though, Lane Kiffin is going to have to pull some surprise punches on the Michigan State defense and open up the playbook.
4 — Throw the Ball
The biggest knock on the Michigan State defense all year is that its secondary hasn’t lived up to the expectations Mark Dantonio has built, especially for his corners (even more than the safeties). All season long, teams have focused heavily on beating the Spartans through the air.
That makes sense when a championship-caliber defense is giving up 229 passing yards a game.
The problem is that it takes more than throwing it all over the field to beat this defense. Penn State threw the ball 47 times but still lost by 39. Indiana made a concerted effort to be balanced in the first half, despite throwing the ball 37 times. After heading into the locker room down one, the Hoosiers tried to open up the playbook and make plays in the air. It ended in a 24-point fourth quarter for the Spartan offense and a 52-26 win.
Overall, teams have averaged 32 pass attempts per game against the Michigan State defense this year.
Lane Kiffin’s offense hasn’t thrown the ball that many times in a game since early October, when Alabama used the passing game to score 17 points in the fourth quarter and beat Arkansas after trailing 7-3 in the third quarter.
There’s no doubt that success in this game will ride on the shoulders of Derrick Henry as he carries the ball. Signal caller Jake Coker will also gain an opportunity to create the performance of his career.
Coker has had six games this year with over 200 yards. If he can hit that mark by being a game manager, finding playmakers, and hitting the home run on a couple of play-action passes, Kiffin will be able to attack the Michigan State defense in many ways.
A well-managed game by Coker will also put the Tide in a position to control the line of scrimmage by using the passing game to extend drives, and by keeping Derrick Henry in position to run the ball on first and second down.
3 — Attack the Michigan State Pass Defense
Any time you face a 4-3 over defense that tends to put its defensive backs on an island, you have to be willing to attack it with aggressive play-calling. To open up running lanes for Henry, Kiffin has to be willing to call some plays that will force the Michigan State defense to take eight out of the box.
Coker provides that opportunity as a quarterback who is mobile in the pocket.
Whether it’s rushing plays with the quarterback to the edge, screen plays, or taking chances down the field, nobody during the late stretch of the season has been willing to challenge this Spartan defense and take control of a game against it.
Timidity from opposing offensive coordinators has given Michigan State’s offense opportunities late in games to gash clock, collect yardage, and bolster its hopes of winning by continuously running the football down opposing teams’ throats, while the Spartans’ defense continues to deliver knockout blows to offenses trying to get back into a game.
Against Ohio State, the Spartan offense ran the ball 19 times in the 21 plays of its final two scoring drives. The Spartans ran the ball 16 times in their winning drive and ate 9 minutes of clock against Iowa.
In order to take control of the game, there has to be some aggressive play calls on offense that keep Michigan State’s defense guessing… and the ball in the hands of the Alabama offense.
2 — Convert on Third Down
Every big game will have a moment when a third-down play becomes paramount: An offense will either win or give control of the game to the opposing team. At this stage of the season, third-down conversions can be life or death for your football team.
In the second half, there will be a moment when the Bama offense has a chance to impose its will and snag momentum from the Spartans with a big third-down play. In the fourth quarter, converting on third down might be the only way to survive on a final drive.
Taking away third down from offensives in high level games has been the X-factor for the Michigan State defense all year. Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa were able to convert only 27 percent (combined) of their third-down conversions: 11 of 41.
51 percent of those teams’ drives resulted in a 3-and-out punt.
This is where Jake Coker can make the biggest impact on the Cotton Bowl. He doesn’t have to string together a ton of passing plays to give his team a chance to win.
On the season, he has completed under 48 percent of his attempts on third down, when the distance needed for a first down is anywhere between three and seven yards. That will need to improve in order for Alabama to win.
So will the team’s 30-percent third-down completion rate this season in games on the road or at neutral sites.
1 — Use the Big Play
The one true weakness the Michigan State defense presents heading into the Cotton Bowl is the frequency with which it gives up the big play.
At the end of the regular season, the Spartans had given up 172 plays over 10 yards, which ranked 10th in the Big Ten Conference. Of those 172, only 50 happened on running plays. In the 60 plays of 20 yards or more that their defense gave up, only 12 came by rushing the football.
Nobody expects the bowling ball that is Derrick Henry to rip off a ton of big plays. Yet, his consistent ability to move the chains will have to emerge to set up the big plays Alabama can use to separate itself offensively.
That’s where the play-action duo of Coker and receiver Calvin Ridley comes into play. The freshman has had only three 100-yard games all year and has made more than seven receptions in a game just two times.
Yardage and receptions won’t matter in this game, however. Ridley just has to be ready for the moment when he is called upon by Lane Kiffin to make a mammoth play. Four of Ridley’s five touchdowns this year have come on passing plays of 30 yards or more.
The 2015 Cotton Bowl is a battle of defensive Goliaths. For the Alabama offense, the big play could be the hurled stone that sends the Michigan State defense tumbling out of national title contention.