ARLINGTON, Texas – For 22 minutes and 44 seconds, the 80th Cotton Bowl was the dullest New Year’s Eve party on the block.
The house guests, having made the trip from East Lansing, Mich. and Tuscaloosa, Ala., milled about AT&T Stadium seemingly waiting for a good song to start, playing through seven combined punts in as many drives.
Then Alabama QB Jake Coker, a senior playing in his first and only bowl game, played just the right track, jump starting the party with “50-yard Bomb to the Michigan State one-yard line” Feat. WR Calvin Ridley.
“He made a move on the safety and got vertical and got by him,” said Coker. “I just threw it up to him. And Calvin does what he does. He went up and made a play.”
Moments later, RB Derrick Henry scored the first touchdown of Alabama’s 38-0 romp over Michigan State, which let everyone know they’d be at the real party, the National Championship in Glendale, Ariz.
Henry, the second Alabama player to ever win the Heisman, wasn’t flashy in his first performance after celebrating in New York City. Henry had two touchdowns, which supported his 78 yards on 20 carries, his third lowest total of the season. At the end of the first half, with Alabama beginning to overwhelm the MSU party goers with its 10-0 lead, Henry only had 39 yards on 11 carries.
“Once we settled down, we hit some big plays on them, which was really important,” Saban said. “But we kind of knew going in those are run-pass options. So Jake reads what’s (in) the box? Can we block them? Do they have the numbers outside, and do we have the angles to be able to block the people on the bubbles and the smokes? I think he did a great job of reading it. And that was effective for us early in the game. Some of those plays, if the box was right, Derrick Henry would have got the ball.”
Henry’s output was more than seven combined rushers could do for MSU, which finished the night with 29 yards on 26 carries.
“The inability to run the football consistently obviously hurt us,” said MSU head coach Mark Dantonio. “First time
all year that that’s happened to us.”
MSU’s previous season low was against Michigan in Week 7 when it ran 33 times for 58 yards. But that day included two touchdowns. Thursday night, the Spartans became the first FBS team to be shut out in a game at AT&T Stadium.
“When that happens, you get behind the chains, you’re forced to throw,” Dantonio continued. “They (Alabama) pressure you. We’re four out of 16 on third down. So bad things start to happen when those things — when things tilt that way.”
The game fully tilted into Alabama’s favor when Cyrus Jones performed “Return to Sender,” taking a MSU punt out of its endzone and running 57 yards for the score. It was Jones’ fourth punt return for a score this season and in his career. He finished the night with five returns for 80 yards.
“We’ve had really good punt returns this year,” said Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who won his ninth career bowl game. “Unfortunately for us, about half of them have been called back because of penalties. But Cyrus has done a really good job all year, A, of fielding the ball which is the most important thing and being a tremendous
threat with a big play that we’ve had several of this year.”
Another big play came with 2:41 left in the third quarter. Coker and Ridley would lay down a remix to their first hit single, “50-yard Touchdown Pass to Go Up 24-0.” The play has been preceded 12 seconds earlier by the classic background vocals of “SEC! SEC!” chants ringing throughout the stadium.
Coker finished the night with 25-30 for 286 yards, surpassing his previous career high of 262 yards set against Arkansas. The Mobile, Ala. native who transferred from Florida State in 2014 guaranteed himself one more college game.
“(MSU) played a hard physical game,” Coker said. “We just got a lot of athletes on the outside. And Calvin did a great job of just getting up and making plays. And it makes things a lot easier on me, a lot easier than it
Coker, who connected with Ridley eight times for 138 yards and 2 TD, had one party foul in a night where Michigan State owned most of them.
In the first quarter, the senior committed an unforced fumble while scrambling 13 yards back from MSU defenders. The ball went out of bounds and the Spartans were credited with their first of two sacks.
Meanwhile, Connor Cook, playing in his last game as a Spartan, cemented the first Cotton Bowl shutout since 1963 with his second interception of the night just over 30 seconds before the gun. The senior finished the night 19-39 for 210 yards.
Alabama, playing in and winning its first Cotton Bowl since the vacated 2006 victory over Texas Tech, finished out the night and the calendar year with “Victory Formation,” performed by all 11 offensive players.