Angry Alabama defense makes point against Michigan State

Alabama routs Michigan State, advances to CFP title game (3:47)

Alabama cruises at the Cotton Bowl behind Jake Coker's 286 yards and two touchdowns passing. Connor Cook had two interceptions, and the Crimson Tide advance to the College Football Playoff national title game with a 38-0 win over Michigan State. (3:47)

ARLINGTON, Texas -- I don't know what they're showing on the runways of Paris, but at the New Year's Eve ball at AT&T Stadium, the fashionistas on the Michigan State offense wore Crimson and White.

All night long.

No. 2 Alabama saved its most dominant defensive performance of the season for its biggest game to this point, embarrassing the No. 3 Spartans 38-0 on Thursday in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. With the victory, the Crimson Tide earned an even bigger game, against No. 1 Clemson, on Jan. 11. If Alabama (13-1) wins that one, the Tide will be the national champion for the fourth time in seven seasons.

Michigan State (12-2) won the Big Ten with a balanced offense and a physical defense. But the Crimson Tide defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage so quickly that the Spartans abandoned the run, finishing with 29 yards on 26 carries. Alabama also sacked Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook four times, intercepted him twice, and never gave him a chance to breathe.

The Tide defense didn't win the game by itself. When the Michigan State defense took away Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, limiting him to 75 yards on 20 carries, quarterback Jake Coker responded with a career-high 286 yards and two touchdowns on 25-of-30 passing. Senior Cyrus Jones had a 57-yard punt return for a touchdown, his school-record fourth of the season, as well as a touchdown-saving interception that ended Michigan State's lone threat to score.

"I'm really, really proud of our team," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I think last year when we came to this game [semifinal], we were happy just to take part in the game. I think this year we wanted to sort of take the game."

Only the diehard Alabama fans would say that the game ended when Henry put the Tide on the scoreboard with a 1-yard touchdown with 5:36 in the second quarter. The prudent held back even after Adam Griffith gave Alabama a two-score lead with a 47-yard field goal late in the half.

But once the Tide took the second-half kickoff 75 yards in nine plays and stretched the lead to 17-0, the Clemson coaching staff could have broken out the video and gone to work.

"Spirited" is the polite adjective for the tenor of the Alabama defense in practice this week. In fact, the Crimson Tide defense came into the semifinal angry. It had a point to make. It wanted to know how it could be the best defense of the FBS and not win any national awards.

Junior end A'Shawn Robinson, a finalist for the Outland Trophy, wanted to show he is in fact the nation's best interior lineman. Senior linebacker Reggie Ragland, a finalist for the Butkus, Nagurski and Bednarik, didn't bring home any hardware, either.

"A lot of guys feel like they got snubbed on some things in the postseason," Ragland, a unanimous All-American, said. "And the team didn't like that. . . . It's not about me or A'Shawn. It's about our defense. It shows how hard we worked. Guys didn't like that. Plus we knew what happened last year in the final four, against Ohio State."

So the Tide began to make its case.

In 14 first-quarter snaps, the Spartans called seven running plays and gained a total of 2 yards. Evidently, co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner had seen enough. In 19 snaps in the second quarter, Michigan State called three running plays, all of them on first down, and two on the first play of a possession.

"You know, I wondered how long it would take," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. " . . . A lot of people think the way to beat us is to throw it, sling it around. I thought they would be more stubborn and patient because they have been all year. But they aborted it pretty quick."

Three times, Michigan State drove past midfield in the first half. The Spartans ran eight plays in plus territory and lost a cumulative 18 yards. On their first play in the red zone, at the Alabama 12 with 15 seconds left in the half, Cook underthrew a pass to Aaron Burbridge that Jones picked off at the Tide 2-yard line.

Michigan State never ran another play in the red zone.

"The inability to run the football consistently obviously hurt us," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who has faced his mentor, Nick Saban, twice in bowls and lost by a combined score of 87-7. "First time all year that that's happened to us."

The Spartans did a good job of bottling Henry, even as he scored twice, extending his touchdown streak to 19 games and giving him the Southeastern Conference single-season record with 25 scores. But Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin expected Michigan State to key on Henry.

"I just figured they had a month, or whatever it was, to prepare for a Heisman Trophy winner," said Kiffin, who coached three such winners at USC. "Being in those situations before, there was always such media attention, whether it was Carson [Palmer], [Matt] Leinart, Reggie [Bush], to stop the Heisman winner, that that's what they were going to do. They're a great run defense, anyway."

So Kiffin loaded up the game plan with Coker, who began this season as an inexperienced fifth-year senior and -- this is not meant as damning with faint praise -- has blossomed into a competent quarterback who is careful with the ball.

Coker began by stretching the Spartans' defense with one pass in the flat after another. He didn't throw downfield until his 10th pass, nearly four minutes into the second quarter.

"Making sure there was nothing else going on," Kiffin said. "We got the ball outside on some perimeter stuff. Their front seven is so good in there. Try to eliminate them by moving the ball around, then see if we can get them tired, playing sideline to sideline, then go for the big shots with the wideouts."

Twice Coker threw long passes downfield to his fastest receiver, freshman Calvin Ridley. In each case, Ridley got behind safety Demetrious Cox, who, like the rest of the Spartans' defense, had one eye on Henry all night. The first one, a 50-yard gain that Coker fit into a small window, moved Alabama to the Michigan State 1 to set up the first touchdown. The second one, a 50-yard touchdown, followed Jones' punt return five plays later late in the third quarter and made the neutral field sound like Bryant-Denny Stadium.

And why not? No team has won more games at AT&T Stadium this season than Alabama. The Tide have two victories; the Dallas Cowboys have one.

Clemson is next, and in Deshaun Watson, the Tigers have the offensive weapon that has hurt Alabama the most in recent years: the dual-threat quarterback. As the No. 2 seed, Alabama will wear its white road uniforms in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. We just may find out how good Watson looks wearing white.