ARLINGTON, Texas -- Alabama didn’t need its Heisman winner to dismantle No. 3 Michigan State 38-0 on Thursday in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Derrick Henry put an exclamation point on the end of the Bama beatdown, but it was the Crimson Tide’s other stars who shined in Texas -- and none more brightly than quarterback Jake Coker.
The Spartans were determined to not let Alabama run through them Thursday night, so the Tide decided to go over and around the Spartans instead. Coker threw for a season-high 286 yards, including two touchdown passes to freshman All-America receiver Calvin Ridley.
Michigan State kept Coker on the run for much of the night, but every time the Spartans defenders got their hands on him, the Alabama senior slipped free and completed another pass downfield. Coker kept the Tide’s offense ticking during the first three quarters, before Cyrus Jones tore the game wide open with a 57-yard punt return touchdown that made the score 24-0 in the third quarter.
Alabama’s vaunted defensive line was as advertised -- as massive and overwhelming as the video screen that hung at AT&T Stadium. The Spartans’ running back committee had minus-9 rushing yards at halftime and didn’t reach double digits until the fourth quarter.
Michigan State’s Connor Cook, expected to the better of the two quarterbacks in Dallas, was sacked four times and thrown off course several other times. He found his stride temporarily on the final drive of the first half, but the spark was quickly extinguished by Jones’ interception at the goal line. He ended the night 19-of-39 passing for 210 yards.
What the win means for Alabama: The win vanquishes some demons for Alabama after they lost to the Big Ten champ in last year’s playoff game. It also, of course, opens the door for yet another national championship trophy for Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.
The blowout marked the ninth time in nine tries that Saban has beaten a former assistant of his by double digits. He is one win away from joining former Alabama coach Bear Bryant as the only head coaches with five national championships to their names; Saban has won three in his previous eight years in Tuscaloosa. Another one next week would put him firmly in the conversation about the greatest college coach of all time.
What the loss means for Michigan State: The Spartans fell short of their championship goals but could very well be the second-best program in the country. Michigan State played the way college football fans have come to expect from a Mark Dantonio team: slugging it out with the bigger, stronger Tide until the end.
The question now is how long the window for a title in East Lansing remains open. Star quarterback Cook and several other key players are out of eligibility, and life in the Big Ten East Division isn’t getting easier any time soon. Dantonio’s program is strong enough to withstand losing some veterans, but opportunities such as a trip to the CFP are hard to come by for any team.
Top play: The ball didn’t wiggle when trapped to Ridley’s shoulder pad in the corner of Alabama’s end zone. Ridley managed to get his heel down in bounds and pin a 6-yard pass from Coker to his chest on his first scoring play of the night. The play, which was ruled an incompletion but then overturned, gave Alabama a 17-0 lead on the opening drive of the second half.
Ridley had another candidate for play of the game in the first half, when he tracked down a 50-yard bomb at the goal line to set up Alabama’s first score. He ended the night with eight catches for 138 yards and two scores.
Unsung hero: Alabama junior Jonathan Allen wasn’t the most talked about Cotton Bowl defensive lineman this week, but he’ll be the one Michigan State remembers most. Allen fought through double teams multiple times to disrupt the Spartans' passing game and sacked Cook twice.
His play didn’t go unnoticed, but it’s likely underrated when considering whom he was beating. Michigan State center Jack Allen was a Rimington Award finalist this season and rarely, if ever, allowed anyone lined up across from him in his four-year career to get to the quarterback. Alabama had the better Allen on Thursday, and that gave them control of the line of scrimmage when on defense.