Alabama took an unusual approach to notch its first bowl victory of the College Football Playoff era Thursday night at AT&T Stadium.
The second-ranked Crimson Tide leaned more on the arm of quarterback Jake Coker than the legs of running back Derrick Henry, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner, to break down No. 3 Michigan State’s stingy defense on the way to a 38-0 triumph in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl.
Alabama leaned on a pair of long-distance connections from Coker that covered 50 and 41 yards to set up first-half scores. Then he added a 6-yard touchdown strike to Calvin Ridley on the first possession of the third quarter to extend the Crimson Tide’s lead to 17-0.
The defense, which held the Spartans to 29 rushing yards (1.1 per carry), took care of the rest while Coker (25-of-30 passing, career-high 286 yards, two TDs) found Ridley for a 50-yard scoring strike with 2:20 left in the third quarter that squashed any thoughts of a possible rally by the Spartans (12-2).
Alabama (13-1) advances to the CFP national championship game, Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz., and will face No. 1 Clemson (14-0), a 37-17 winner over No. 4 Oklahoma in Thursday’s other semifinal matchup at the Orange Bowl.
For Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, his team’s performance marked a huge improvement over last year’s 42-35 loss to Ohio State in last year’s semifinal matchup in the Sugar Bowl.
“The players learned a lot from last year’s game. They wanted to do something a little bit different [this time] and take over the game,” Saban said. “I think we did that in the second half. I’m just proud as hell of them for getting where they are.”
Alabama now has more victories this season in AT&T Stadium (2) than the Dallas Cowboys (1), the NFL team that calls the venue its home. Alabama opened its season with a 35-17 victory over Wisconsin in Arlington on Sept. 5.
In addition, Saban remains undefeated in head-to-head meetings against four former assistants who have faced him as head coaches at other Division I programs during Saban’s tenure at Alabama.
He is 2-0 against Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, a member of Saban’s MSU staffs from 1995-99, and the Crimson Tide has outscored the Spartans by a combined margin of 87-7 in those contests. Alabama routed Michigan State 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla. in the first coaching matchup between mentor and protégé.
This one did not end any better for Dantonio, whose squad managed only 239 total yards. Michigan State was shut out for the first time in 196 games, dating to a 14-0 loss to Michigan in 2000.
“Our inability to run the football consistently hurt us,” Dantonio said. “It’s the first time that’s happened all year. You get behind the chains when things tilt that way.”
The Alabama defense took full advantage. But it was Coker, not Henry (75 rushing yards, two TDs), who lit the offensive fuse for the Crimson Tide and earned Cotton Bowl Outstanding Offensive Player honors.
Coker clinched a career-best night for passing yards on his final completion of the third quarter, the 50-yard scoring strike to Ridley. That allowed him to pass his previous high of 262 yards, set this season against Arkansas.
Ridley’s catch, which followed on the heels a 57-yard punt return for a touchdown by Cyrus Jones, triggered an early round of celebratory “SEC! SEC!” chants from the Alabama contingent among the 82,812 assembled at AT&T Stadium.
Henry, who had a combined 90 carries in Alabama’s last two games, carried only 20 times against Michigan State because of a more pass-oriented game plan installed by offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Alabama worked the perimeter of the Spartans’ defense with its aerial game early in the contest, with Coker completing 16 of 20 passes in the first half to set the tone and keep the Spartans off-balance.
“The way they played us, it was going to be difficult to run the ball. So we knew Jake was going to have to throw it and do a good job of it,” Saban said. “And he did a fantastic job of making some big plays. Our receivers did a great job of getting downfield on their safeties.”
The Crimson Tide defense, which finished with four sacks and two interceptions, allowed the Spartans to convert only 4 of 16 third-down opportunities.
MSU’s lone snap inside the Alabama 20-yard line resulted in a Connor Cook interception from the Crimson Tide 12-yard line in the final minute of the first half. Jones made the pick, giving Alabama an extra jolt of momentum to go with its 10-0 lead at intermission.
The Tide never looked back, posting the most lopsided shutout in Cotton Bowl history. The 38-0 margin topped Oklahoma A&M’s 34-0 blanking of TCU in 1945. Next up for the Crimson Tide in Clemson.
“Clemson’s got a great team. They’re undefeated,” Saban said. “I’m sure our guys are going to be motivated to play the best they can and it’s a great opportunity for them.”
No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 2 Alabama
7:30 p.m. Jan. 11, ESPN