Kirk Cousins

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Divergent paths of Jake Coker, Connor Cook converge in Texas

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ARLINGTON, Texas – Near the end of Alabama’s post-game press conference after its 38-0 win over Michigan State in the 80th Cotton Bowl, head coach Nick Saban had a moment when he wasn’t being asked a question.

With glasses perched at the end of his nose, the 64-year-old coach looked at a stat sheet and saw quarterback numbers that may have surprised some, but not the winner of four national titles on the verge of a potential fifth.

On the right side of the sheet were the stats for Alabama, which has been led by senior quarterback Jake Coker.

Coker, a 2014 transfer from Florida State, had just played his 31st college game and started just his 13th.

It was Coker who got the ball rolling toward Alabama’s first official Cotton Bowl win since 1982 and kept it rolling. Halfway through the second quarter, a 50-yard toss to freshman receiver Calvin Ridley set up a one-yard touchdown run from Heisman winner Derrick Henry.

Two quarters later, Coker, who had never set foot on the field for a bowl game, had 286 yards and two touchdowns on 25 completions and five misses. The game’s  Most Outstanding Offensive Player helped send Alabama to the National Championship Game against undefeated Clemson.

But Saban wasn’t surprised.

“He’s pretty much done a good job all year long in terms of whatever we’ve asked him to do,” Saban said. “He’s not a selfish guy at all. He never complains about when we don’t throw it down the field enough. He just tries to do what he can do for his team.”

That includes contributing to the first Cotton Bowl shutout since 1963 and continuing an 11-game win streak that began after Coker didn’t start against Ole Miss and failed to mount a comeback in the 43-37 loss.

“I think that’s why he was elected captain by his teammates and he’s respected so much because of his toughness and his competitive spirit and how he’s a real team guy,” Saban said. “Tonight he had to make the plays because they were there, and he certainly made them. But I think in each game that we’ve asked him to do that, he’s come through for us very nicely.”

Both of Coker’s touchdowns went to Ridley, who now has seven TD catches on the year. His 1,031 yards gives him the single-season receivers mark for freshman at Alabama.

“Calvin did a great job of just getting up and making plays,” Coker said, sitting to the left of Saban. “It makes things a lot easier on me, a lot easier than it should be. He’s one heck of a player. And so are all the other guys out there, man. They just got up and made plays and made me look better than I should have.”

They made him look better than the quarterback that had sat in his seat just minutes before.

On the left side of the state sheet Saban gazed at was the state line for Michigan State’s Connor Cook.

365 days ago, Cook sat before the Cotton Bowl media following “one for the ages.”

The junior quarterback had orchestrated MSU’s three touchdown fourth quarter to storm back and defeat Baylor 42-41. It was the Spartan’s fourth bowl win in as many seasons, which came after losses in their previous seven bowl games.

Cook, the winningest Michigan State QB at 34-5, was part of three of those, including MSU’s first Rose Bowl win since 1988, a 24-20 victory over Stanford.

A full calendar year after its triumph over Baylor, Cook and his Spartans were on receiving end of the first Cotton Bowl shutout in more than 50 years. It was a long night for a quarterback who had seen and accomplished more than any of his predecessors.

“There’s no comparison the feeling that I had last year to this year,” Cook said after going 19 of 32 for 210 yards, two interceptions and four sacks. “You can’t compare the two at all. So, obviously, last year was — everyone was so happy. Everyone was on cloud nine, a 20-point comeback in the fourth quarter. That was something for the ages. So everyone was stoked about that.”

No one was stoked on the night MSU was shut out for the first time in 195 games (vs Michigan, 2000). But there were no words of bitterness coming from Cook, just those of humble gratitude for being part of the ride. A ride that led to Michigan State being one game away from competing for its first outright championship.

“Looking back, we’ve been so fortunate to play in so many big-time games, to win so many games,” Connor said. “The ride has been so fun. And the last thing I want to do is look at the downside and say, ‘Our last game as Spartans we lost.’ We want to be positive people. We want to look at the bright side. We’re just so lucky to play for Coach (Dantonio) and all the other coaches.”

It was a ride that saw Cook help make MSU the best program in the state after years of playing second fiddle to the University of Michigan, which had spiraled during Cook’s time under center in East Lansing.

“Walking in as a freshman, I would have never experienced or never expected to have an experience like this,” Cook said. “I saw Kirk Cousins and I thought I would be lucky to play one season. So to be able to play in all the games we’ve been able to play in, you just got to look at the bright side and all the positives.”

Earlier in the week, Cook said his pre-game ritual was to listen to John Mayer music.

One of Mayer’s biggest hits is “Waiting on the World to Change.”

The song was released in 2006, the year before Mark Dantonio’s first season as head coach. In title alone, the song could have been the theme for Spartan faithful who were waiting for their school’s time to come.

Seven years later, Cook started his first game.

Then Michigan State’s world changed.

Week 5, Statistically Speaking

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A statistical snapshot of the week that was in college football…

.6 — Yards per carry, on 25 attempts, Washington State averaged in a 34-28 loss to unbeaten Cal, which averaged just 2.6 ypc on its 30 attempts itself.  The two teams did combine for 779 yards passing, 390 for Cal’s Jared Goff and 389 for Wazzu’s Luke Falk.

0 — Prior to Missouri (Drew Lock) and South Carolina (Lorenzo Nunez), the number of times an SEC game had featured two true freshman quarterbacks as the starters.

1 — Turnovers for Florida State, LSU and Navy this season, the fewest of any FBS teams in 2015.

1 — Pass attempts for Army in the service academy’s loss to Penn State.  The Black Knights have now attempted 37 passes through five games.

UAB v Western Kentucky4 — Consecutive 400-yard passing games for Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty.  The senior now has eight such games over the past 18, including two that were more than 500 yards.

10 — Consecutive games Baylor has scored 30 or more points, the longest current streak in the FBS.  Michigan State had a streak of 12 straight entering Week 5, but scored just 24 in a win over Purdue.

16 — Counting Georgia’s Nick Chubb in Week 5, the number of players who have rushed for 100-plus yards since the beginning of the 2005 season. Chubb’s 146-yard effort in the loss was his 13th straight of 100 or more yards, tying UGA great Herschel Walker for the all-time school record.

21 — Deficit North Carolina erased in its 38-21 win over Georgia Tech, the largest comeback in the football program’s history.

22 — ACC wins under David Cutcliffe (2008-present) for Duke after winning just 18 conference games from 1990-2007.

Purdue v Michigan State28 — Career wins for Connor Cook, the most-ever for a quarterback in Michigan State history.  The senior surpassed the record of 27 set by Kirk Cousins.

34ESPN College Gameday shows that have originated from a game featuring Alabama and Florida, the most of any FBS programs.  Others schools with the most Gameday appearances include Ohio State (33), Florida State (31), Oklahoma (29) and Notre Dame (26).  The latter’s game at Clemson Saturday is included.

38 — Consecutive winning seasons for Florida State, the longest such streak in the country.

56 — Times Alabama has held its opponents to 20 points or less since the start of the 2010 season.  That number is tops in the nation, with Florida State and Stanford next at 54 and 48, respectively.

100 — Yards of total offense for Virginia Tech in a 17-13 loss to Pittsburgh.  That’s the fewest yards for Tech since 60 yards in a 1987 loss to Clemson, which also happened to be Frank Beamer‘s first game as Hokies’ head coach.

191 — Rushing yards for Utah State’s Kent Meyers, setting a single-game school record for a quarterback.  The old record was 121, set most recently by Chuckie Keeton.

<> on September 19, 2015 in Pullman, Washington.208 — Rushing yards for Wyoming’s Brian Hill in the Cowboys’ eighth straight loss, a 31-13 setback to Appalachian State.

221 — Career-high rushing yards for Michael Gordon in Arkansas State’s win over Idaho

234 — Rushing yards for Ezekiel Elliott on his first eight carries of the second half in Ohio State’s closer-than-expected win over Indiana.  195 of those yards came on three touchdown runs.  Elliott finished with a career-high 274 yards on 23 carries, and his 11.9 yards per carry were a school record.

260 — Career-high rushing yards for Larry Rose III in New Mexico State’s loss to rival New Mexico.  The sophomore averaged 12.4 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns.

365 — School freshman record passing yards for BYU’s Tanner Mangum in the Friday night win over UConn.

437 — Career-high passing yards for Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph in the win over Kansas State.  It was Rudolph’s second career 400-yard passing game, both of which have come this season.

Texas State v Houston455 — Yards of offense for Greg Ward Jr., including 182 yards rushing that set a single-game Houston record for a quarterback.

1922 — The last time Penn State played five consecutive home games prior to starting the 2015 season with five in a row in Happy Valley.

1930 — The last time Temple played a non-conference game against an FBS opponent in the state of North Carolina before the Week 5 game against Charlotte.

1942 — The last time both Ohio State and Indiana were undefeated entering a game prior to the Week 5 matchup between the 4-0 Buckeyes and 4-0 Hoosiers.

1950 — Prior to this year, the last time Cal began a season 5-0.

1966 — The last time Michigan State was ranked second in the country in the Associated Press poll.

1977 — Both the year and number of days since Clemson last played host to Notre Dame before Saturday’s clash of ranked teams.