With its recent history of success against highly ranked teams, Michigan State’s status as a big underdog heading into the Cotton Bowl seemed a little strange.
But Alabama’s status as a heavy favorite was validated Thursday as the Tide rolled the Spartans, dominating on both sides of the ball to send Mark Dantonio’s team to a 38-0 shutout loss in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
Last year, we saw a Big Ten team in Ohio State defeat Alabama, the perennial national-title contender. This year, the Tide exacted their revenge on the Big Ten, completely snuffing out anything the Spartans tried to do offensively. Michigan State amassed just 239 total yards, including just 29 rushing yards.
Connor Cook struggled throughout the night. He was under nearly constant pressure, sacked four times, and completed just 19 of his 39 passing attempts for 210 yards. He threw no touchdown passes and two interceptions in the final game of his college career, which he ended as the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history.
And on the other side of the ball, Michigan State’s defense started well and did a good job keeping Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry at bay. But Alabama quarterback Jake Coker carved up the Spartans secondary, passing for 286 yards and heaving one deep pass after another, completing three of more than 40 yards, two for 50 yards.
The first half was dominated by defense, with the two teams combining for seven punts on the game’s first seven drives and finishing the first quarter without a point on the scoreboard.
But Coker began lighting up the Michigan State secondary in the second quarter. The biggest play of the first half was a 50-yard bomb from Coker to Calvin Ridley, which set the Tide up at the Spartans’ one-yard line, and Henry punched it in for a touchdown two plays later.
On Alabama’s next drive, Coker hit O.J. Howard for a 41-yard gain, getting the Tide inside the Spartans’ 25-yard line. Adam Griffith booted a 47-yard field goal several plays later to make it a 10-0 game.
Cook finally strung together a couple big pass plays on Michigan State’s final drive of the half. On third and 18, he found Macgarrett Kings for a 26-yard gain, and he followed that with an 18-yard pass to Aaron Burbridge that set the Spartans up at the Alabama 12-yard line. But Cook’s next throw was intercepted, a momentum killer and a crushing way to end the first half.
Though both defenses looked strong early, Alabama proved to have the advantage on both sides of the ball after a half. Michigan State was able to limit Henry to just 38 first-half rushing yards, but Coker was 16-for-20 for 177 yards, including the two long passes that set up the scores. Cook completed nine of his 18 passing attempts for 133 yards, but he was sacked three times and the Spartans finished the half with minus-nine rushing yards on 13 carries.
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Spartans gear right here]
In the second half, Alabama picked up where it left off. Coker led a nine-play, 75-yard drive, passing for nearly 50 yards along the way. The first play of the drive was a 26-yard gainer, and Coker capped it with a toss to the end zone that was hauled in by Ridley, who caught the pass around the arm of a Michigan State defender. It was initially ruled he didn’t have possession, but the play was reviewed, and a touchdown was awarded to boost the Tide’s lead to 17-0.
After another couple quick exits by the Spartans offense, Cyrus Jones turned things into a rout with a 57-yard punt-return touchdown that grew the lead to 24-0 and seemingly put the game on ice with more than a quarter left to play. Then following another Michigan State three and out, on the first play of the next Alabama drive, Coker heaved a 50-yard touchdown pass to Ridley to crank the score up to 31-0.
And the beatdown didn’t end there. Kenyan Davis busted off a 58-yard run midway through the fourth quarter, and Henry cashed in with a touchdown from 11 yards out a couple plays later to make it 38-0.
With the win, Alabama advanced to the College Football Playoff national championship game for a matchup with Clemson — which defeated Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Thursday — a week from Monday in Arizona.
Michigan State finished its season at 12-2.