Remember way back when Alabama had an open competition at the quarterback position?
Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?
Alabama rode its typical, smothering defense and a masterful performance from QB Jake Coker to annihilate the Michigan State Spartans on New Year's Eve by a score of 38-0. Coker was the story in this one as the Spartans sold out to stop Heisman RB Derrick Henry, staying in single coverage for virtually the entire game and banking that Coker would be unable to beat them with his arm.
They were wrong.
For one night, the Mobile native flashed that big arm and looked like the superstar QB he was rumored to be as he transferred in from the Florida State Seminoles. Following his first extended practice as the unquestioned starter, Jake excelled in several areas in which he had struggled previously. He consistently made good decisions, was accurate down the field, came off his first read on several occasions, avoided the big turnover, and even got TE O.J. Howard involved in the offense. He finished a ridiculous 25/30 for 286 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions to rightfully claim the game MVP award. While there is still one very important game left to play, this is one he will surely cherish forever.
The run game never really got going until garbage time, as the Spartans made the head-scratching move to continue selling out long after Coker and the passing game had proven their mettle. Nobody in the Michigan State secondary had an answer for Calvin Ridley in particular, but reality is that wide receivers were running free in the secondary all night. They did succeed in limiting Henry, but that won't get you far when the opposing QB completes north of 80% of his passes and hits on some deep shots. It was a puzzling strategy to be sure, as pulling an extra man out of the box would have at least given them a fighting chance to stay in the game as Alabama pounded at them.
The defense was its utterly impenetrable self, completely snuffing out the Michigan St. run game while keeping two safeties deep. When Connor Cook dropped back to pass, the front four routinely collapsed the pocket around him. As a future NFL signal-caller, Cook was able to find a few yards here and there, but the Spartans only managed to put together one decent drive, completing a few passes to get into the red zone late in the first half before Cyrus Jones ended the threat with a textbook interception in single coverage.
Calvin Ridley had another breakout game in Arlington, hauling in eight catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns plus a long catch inside the Michigan St. five-yard-line to set up the Tide's first score. Ridley looked nothing like a freshman, running precise routes while catching everything and looking like the best athlete on the field. He made a spectacular touchdown catch on a fade route that was initially ruled incomplete but overturned when replay showed conclusively that he managed to get a foot down with possession. The offensive strategy was masterful as Lane Kiffin continually worked to stretch the Spartans defense out both vertically and horizontally, eventually finding plenty of explosive plays as the Spartans stubbornly refused to adjust. This was Lane's best night, and it was beautiful.
Special teams were excellent aside from a single kickoff out of bounds. Cyrus Jones provided a dagger with a punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter. Adam Griffith drilled a 47-yard field goal that split the uprights and had plenty of leg to spare. Coverage teams had no major gaffes, and JK Scott had a solid night punting the football.
Several young players got into the game late. Bo Scarbrough received his first extended action and ran hard, showing some of the power he was known for as a five-star on the recruiting circuit. Cooper Bateman got a little action at quarterback as well, as the Tide deployed the entire second unit on offense in the fourth quarter.
There was a brief injury scare involving Cyrus Jones, but he came back into the game and showed no ill effects. The Tide seemingly avoided the injury bug again and goes into the National Championship Game against the Clemson Tigers as healthy as you could hope.
There was plenty of talk coming in about the leadership on this team and some rumblings about possible leadership failures in years past, with Reggie Ragland the most vocal in that regard. Saban said that this team was as focused as any he has ever had at Alabama. Should the Tide win a national title, it will be up to Ragland and the rest of the veterans to lead the way.
One more, men.