ARLINGTON, Texas — When the confetti finally started falling at AT&T Stadium and the University of Alabama was able to celebrate its 38-0 victory over Michigan State, the usual things occurred.
The band played “Rammer Jammer,” the fans went crazy and the players enjoyed every moment of it. There was plenty of praise to go around, but this win was as much one person’s in particular as anyone else’s.
It’s time for Lane Kiffin to take a bow.
Even though this has been Kiffin’s second year as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, some people are still trying to wrap themselves around the fact he’s even with the Crimson Tide at all. No matter how many times they see him alongside Nick Saban on the sideline, it still seems a little surreal.
But while Kiffin has sort of been the forgotten man with the Crimson Tide this season, there’s no doubting the terrific job he did regarding Thursday’s victory in the Cotton Bowl.
How many offensive coordinators would have dared to not give the ball to the Heisman Trophy winner?
“Their front seven was so good in there we tried to eliminate them by moving the ball around, see if we could get them tired, moving the ball around and going sideline to sideline,” Kiffin said. “Then go for the big shots with the wideouts.”
While that’s an oversimplification of the Crimson Tide’s offensive strategy, the decisions about when to give Derrick Henry the ball were partly by design because of pre-snap reads and the respect Alabama had for Michigan State’s run defense.
“We knew that we would have to throw the bubbles and the smokes and the outside perimeter stuff and try to get them blocked on the perimeter to be able to move the ball effectively,” Saban said. “A couple of those first drives that we had we sort of stopped ourselves. We'd be going along, and, when you're doing that you're kind of nickel, diming. You're making seven [yards]. You're making nine. You're making five. And if you get a penalty, it kind of throws you off course. That happened a couple of times early in the game.
“But once we settled down, we hit some big plays on them, which was really important. We kind of knew going in those are run-pass options. So Jake [Coker] 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.”
Nevertheless, Henry finished the first quarter with five carries for 15 yards, which had a lot of Alabama fans scratching their heads, especially after he had 46 carries against Auburn and 44 versus Florida in the SEC Championship Game.
Things started to change midway through the second quarter, shortly after Michigan State cornerback Darian Hicks took the brunt of a Henry hit and had to leave the game. After Alabama got a first down at midfield, Kiffin took a shot downfield to freshman wide receiver Calvin Ridley that fell incomplete, but Saban liked what he saw.
The Spartans were left trying to cover the slot receiver with a safety.
“I just said that we’re going to go,” Saban said. “The next time we did it, that’s when we made a big play.”
Specifically, Ridley caught the 50-yard bomb that set up Alabama’s first touchdown, the 1-yard plunge by Henry, with defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed serving as fullbacks. It was about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but the Crimson Tide never relinquished the momentum.
“It’s sort of a catch-22,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said about the decision to try and stop Henry or Ridley. The Spartans chose Henry, but the way things played out, there obviously wasn’t a correct answer.
Ridley had eight receptions for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Senior quarterback Coker completed 25 of 30 passes for a career-high 286 yards, two touchdowns and, perhaps most importantly, no interceptions.
“We have a great quarterback and he had a great game,” sophomore wide receiver ArDarius Stewart said. “It’s the most complete game we played all year.”
Now is time to step back and take a look at the bigger picture.
In 2014, Blake Sims ended up winning the starting job, and instead of its usual, pro-style offense, the Crimson Tide went to a zone read and often played at a pace that was more typical of a two-minute drill.
Despite that, Alabama ended compiling a school-record 3,487 passing yards and 3,837 yards of total offense. Kiffin’s offense ranked 17th nationally in total offense (484.5 yard) while scoring 36.9 points per game. Sims ended up completing 64.5 percent of his passes and ranked seventh in passing efficiency (157.9).
The player the offense was built around, Amari Cooper, was a Heisman Trophy finalist and Alabama’s first Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s best receiver. He caught a school- and SEC-record 124 passes for an Alabama-record 1,727 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns.
So in two years, Kiffin has had two first-time starting quarterbacks, who essentially required different kinds of schemes, and Alabama was the only program to make the playoffs both years. That’s incredibly impressive.
“Calvin Ridley had never played, Jake had never played and we had nine new starters on offense and Richard Mullaney, the third receiver [transferred] from Oregon State,” Kiffin said. “So it was going to take time.
“Luckily, we are a defensive team. When you are a defensive team and can run the ball, it allows your skill guys and your quarterback to develop as the season progresses. But we knew at some time that we would need these guys like they did today and in the Florida game.”
Although Kiffin is thought to be still getting paid from his contract with Southern California, he’s in the second year of his Alabama deal, which has a base of $680,000 this season—the same amount earned by his predecessor, Doug Nussmeier.
Even if Kiffin leaves immediately after the title game, it’ll have more than gotten its money’s worth.
“I think he did a great job,” Coker said. “[I’m] just happy he’s on our side.”