Daniel McFadin

NASCAR writer for NBCSports.com. Former Sporting News intern. Graduated from IUPUI in Indianapolis with a master in sports journalism in 2014 and from Arkansas State University in 2013 with a degree in Journalism. Originally from Lewisville, Texas, now in Fort Worth. Ask me if I like Star Wars. I dare you.
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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.

Tide rips Spartans, sets desert date with Tigers in title game

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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
should be.”

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.