Each team entered the Cotton Bowl with a different game plan. However, one was clearly more effective than the other.
Despite the fact that Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry entered this game with 90 carries in his past two games combined, the Tide’s coaches were convinced that the way to beat Michigan State was with speed outside the numbers.
For the most part, they were right, and Alabama rolled over the Spartans and advanced to the championship game on January 11 in Glendale, Arizona.
Despite the regular season Henry produced for Alabama — and the talent which made it possible — quarterback Jake Coker became the offensive hero on Thursday night.
Coker has been accurate all season, but explosive plays have not always been there. However, they consistently emerged against the Spartans. Proof of this was Coker’s 50-yard touchdown connection to Calvin Ridley to put the game on ice.
Henry, in fact, did not get a carry on the first possession of the game. (Both teams combined for four total rushing yards in the first quarter.) Coming into the game, Henry was averaging over five yards per carry. He didn’t produce at that level on Thursday, but Coker — entrusted with this game by Lane Kiffin — was more than up for the challenge.
In recent years Alabama has won grinding, physical games. Early on, Thursday’s game looked like 2011’s LSU game. However, athleticism and an ability to hit home-run plays sealed the blowout. Coker stood at the center of this effort; his improvement from the SEC Championship Game to this even bigger title match was considerable.
The power associated with the Alabama name might not have been as conspicuous on offense in this game, but it was still present on the defensive front for the Tide. Michigan State wanted to pound the ball between the tackles, which played right into Alabama’s strong front seven.
On the opposite side of Coker was the hype surrounding Michigan State quarterback Conner Cook. The Spartans’ signal caller has a chance to be a first-round pick. However, inconsistency has doomed him at times.
This was also true on Thursday: Cook looked strong at times, but he also looked terrible in stretches. The way to beat the Tide is over the top and on the back end. However, Cook was not able to make those kinds of throws. When Michigan State got into the red zone and needed a score to keep it close, he tossed a key interception.
Cook finished by completing 19-of-39 passes for no scores and a pair of interceptions. In defense of the quarterback, he was playing with his shoulder still protected. With all the hits he took on Thursday, it clearly took a toll with his throws.
On the other hand, Coker finished 25-of-30 for 286 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. It was easily Coker’s strongest game of the season when he needed it the most.
Henry finished with 75 yards on 20 carries and scored twice. He showed that he was capable of moving on the Spartans’ defense. However, Coker made the progression much easier.
The Tide now move on to play Clemson for the title. It is expected that Alabama will get back to establishing Henry, but Coker certainly showed he was capable of leading a team to the title. That could be the most important component of Alabama’s game plan on Jan. 11.
That game plan certainly didn’t fail the Tide on the last night of 2015.