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.