ARLINGTON, Texas — The play that broke Michigan State’s soul came in the second quarter. It wasn’t Calvin Ridley’s first touchdown or his second. It wasn’t the first interception or the next one. In fact, in the box score, it was a single yard.
There was Heisman winner Derrick Henry—the nation’s great battering ram—standing idle three feet away from the end zone in a tie game. For once, he had company.
Standing just a few feet in front of the Heisman running back were two familiar but unexpected Alabama fixtures: defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed. For all intents and purposes, they were his fullbacks—his escorts.
In total, Alabama’s backfield on this play weighed 867 pounds.
They had worked on it for a few weeks, according to Reed, who was thrilled at another opportunity to hit someone. No, it wasn’t necessary to have Goliath defensive linemen double dip for a brief cameo; Henry is more than capable of handling these matters by his lonesome.
But symbolically, the first score of the game in Alabama's 38-0 Cotton Bowl win—a simple plunge—meant so much more.
“It was like they folded,” Reed said of the play. “They didn’t want to take any blockers on. I think they were scared.”
Who can blame them, quite honestly? Here was a glut of football riches on display. Here was the unbelievable weaponry Nick Saban has at his disposal thriving on the brightest stage imaginable.
That was not the case on last year’s stage when Alabama fell to Ohio State after commanding an early lead. From the onset, Thursday night's contest just felt different.
“Last year we were just happy to participate,” Saban said, citing last year’s disappointing finish against Ohio State. “This year we wanted to make a statement.”
"Statement" falls short of what happened right before 2015 gave way. This was an infomercial for what Saban has always loved and cherished—a brutish, overpowering, deliberate brand of football that begins with defense. This was a team that thrives on being a dominant force getting its opponent to tap out.
Henry’s first score was the only touchdown necessary. The 10-0 halftime lead climbed to a 17-0 cushion early in the third quarter. It was over then, but Alabama wasn’t done.
The 38-0 final score told a tale, although other numbers aside from the finally tally do an even better job of painting an overall picture. Alabama limited Michigan State to 29 yards rushing on 26 carries.
Including the SEC Championship Game against Florida, Alabama has allowed just 44 yards rushing in its past two games.
“They are so big and physical,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said of his front seven following the game. “To be honest, it makes it a lot easier to call the game when you have guys up front that can do that. The practices were so much better than they were last year. It meant a lot for them to get a shutout. They practiced for it.”
One of the nation’s most gifted quarterbacks was completely held in check. Although Connor Cook connected on a handful of quality early throws under pressure, he ended up completing less than 50 percent of his passes.
He also threw two interceptions—something he had not done in 364 days.
Offensively, Alabama showed a much different side. This wasn’t just the usual Henry show.
The team’s workhorse finished with 75 yards on 20 carries—his third-lowest yardage output of the year. It was quarterback Jake Coker doing most of the damage.
While this was unquestionably the defense’s night, Coker certainly deserves to share the stage. He connected on 25 of his 30 throws for 286 yards—a season high in yardage—and threw two touchdowns to talented freshman Ridley.
“I wasn’t surprised at all by the game he had tonight,” Saban said. “He’s pretty much done a good job all year long in terms of what we’ve asked him to do.”
And to top it all off, Alabama added a special teams score into the mix. Cyrus Jones' 57-yard punt return in the third quarter closed out a complete game in every sense.
In every facet, the Tide were worlds better. And beyond simply executing in all three phases, Alabama sent a message to those who stayed in on New Year’s Eve to consume one of the season’s most lopsided affairs.
“The focus that they had for this game was completely different than we ever had before, and I think it paid off for them,” Saban said of his players. “And we’re looking forward to try to do the same thing for the next game.
That next game will come quickly. Clemson, following its 37-17 demolition of Oklahoma, will meet Alabama in the national championship tilt on January 11. It will be the toughest opponent 'Bama has faced all season, headlined by quarterback Deshaun Watson, one of the nation’s most electric talents.
The preparation for Clemson starts now. And knowing the head coach, it’s probably already begun. The rest of us—those who witnessed the dominance live or perhaps from the comfort of a couch or bar stool—will not move as quickly. This one will linger for a while.
The bully was the bully yet again, although this time it was different. Despite knowing well in advance that a result of this nature was possible, it doesn’t make it any easier to process. Even by Alabama's tremendously elevated and at times unfair standards, this was a sight to behold.