It’s not Michigan State’s fault that they’ve been thrashed by Alabama twice in 5 years. The players compete hard; the scheming isn’t horrible; but, the disparity in talent and depth is absolutely apparent.
Then, when the Spartans do play above their head, as happened in the first half of the 2015 College Football Playoff semifinal, Alabama’s playmakers negate all that hard work and an otherwise-excellent season.
We remember the final score now, 38-0 Alabama. And, we recall the deadpan intensity of Jonathan Allen in the locker room thereafter — “Alabama does.” But, for the first half of play, Alabama was in a pretty good defensive tussle. The Spartan defense had done a good job of playing bend-don’t-break defense against the Tide’s passing game: Jake Coker had an efficient game dinking and dunking down the field, completing 25 passes for 286 yards. And, while Ridley had a good day hauling in 8 catches for 138 yards, the lifeblood of the offense, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, was held to just 75 tough yards on 20 carries.
Trailing just 10-0 with 1:18 left in the first half, the Spartans’ passing game began to do some damage, exploiting the middle of the field and softer coverage on the outside. Cyrus Jones was paired on All-Big 10 Aaron Burbridge the entire evening, and was holding his own, despite giving up 5” to the lanky wideout. Jones had mostly negated Burbridge’s versatility, pressing him on his outside shoulder to the sideline. Yes, he was giving up completions, but after alternating between zone-man reads and straight press coverage, the route tree had been limited.
And, so it went, baiting Cook into the same back-shoulder throw over and over. Then, with just :12 left in the first half, at the snap, Jones opened his hips and played the inside just as Cook let the ball go. CyJo would pick it off at the goal line and race up the sideline killing the drive, the Michigan State momentum, and all-but :04 of the half.
Watch Jones’ coverage in the 2-minute drill. When you get frustrated by the DBs’ backs to the ball, this is why it’s done. This is what is meant by “playing in phase.”
Alabama got the ball at the half and would score on its opening possession to take a 17-0 lead. The game was in danger of getting away from the Spartans. It could not afford another negative play. Unfortunately for Michigan State, they could only muster a quick three-and-out. Alabama was going to get the ball back in excellent field position, the only question was on what side of the 50.
The Spartan punter stepped back from his 20 and belted a flat, low line-drive to Jones at the Tide 43-yard line. Jones fielded the punt, spotted a seam on the inside, paused to set up his blockers, moved to the outside, stutter-stepped breaking a defender’s ankles, then accelerated into the endzone for a 57-yard touchdown to put the Tide up 24-0.
At that moment, Sparta was broken. 371 BCE had arrived. The husk of a once-proud team had met its Theban Sacred Band
Alabama would go on to win the national title. Cyrus Jones would then be drafted by the New England Patriots and win a Super Bowl. Michigan State would death spiral, winning just 3 games the next season. #MHAQ
57 days ‘til Alabama Football