Coker could be answer to Michigan State front

Coker+could+be+answer+to+Michigan+State+front

Sean Landry

DALLAS–At this stage, Derrick Henry is the furthest thing from a secret weapon. He’s more like a siege engine, a war hammer, a battering ram that will inevitably break through the line.

The Spartans of Michigan State, though, have a legacy of withstanding sieges. Their front lines have been stout, some of the best to be found anywhere. The defensive front is as active as they come, with a high sack rate. The Spartans don’t give up explosive plays, ranked 15th in the country in IsoPPP and allowing just 113 yards per game. They don’t disguise their blitzes much because they don’t have to. They come downhill, they hit, and they contain.

“They are built to stop the run,” Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said. “They do a great job of that, have done that for years. Regardless of who has been there, they’ve done a great job. I think that what you’ve got to look at is they start up front with a very dominant front four. They can give you a lot of problems obviously stopping the run but also in rushing the passer. Very tough to deal with and really get off the ball. The linebacker group is a very physical group led by No. 30 [Riley Bullough] inside. Very tough mentality. Come down, hit-you-in-the-mouth type of defense.”

So what happens if the Spartans are the immovable object to Henry’s unstoppable force? If Alabama can’t go around them, and can’t go through them, they’ll have to go over, with a passing attack that has shown flashes of brilliance but has averaged a pedestrian 214 yards per game this season, led by quarterback Jake Coker.

“Jake Coker, I think you guys are going to see in a little bit, really is a good example of just continuing to compete,” Kiffin said. “Really was benched and not started in one game. When you think about it, Jake has won every game that he started. So I think that’s a critical moment for Jake, the way he responded, the way he played, and really how he won his team over. It was not by finesse. It was by playing extremely hard, taking a linebacker mentality to the position. And I think that he was not only winning over his offense at that point but winning over his defense.”

Michigan State’s run-stopping defense leaves a few pressure points for the Crimson Tide to exploit. One is each cornerback, likely to be playing man coverage against Alabama’s two primary receivers, ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley. Stewart and Ridley haven’t been called on much this season, with 129 receptions between them, but when they have been, they’ve answered the call. Whether it’s Ridley catching over two receivers or keeping game-winning drives alive, or Stewart providing the end zone safety valve for a scrambling Jake Coker, the duo has shown its ability, and they’ll likely have chances to work against Michigan State’s physical cornerbacks.

“It’s our box, it’s our territory and we just have to win our box,” Stewart said. “I like it a lot. I’m a physical receiver. I played defense before, so I like playing hands on.”

Closer to the line of scrimmage, Alabama will have another crease to target. The Spartans are likely to stay in its base defense, leaving a strong-side linebacker in place of a possible nickleback (or Star). Receiver Richard Mullaney and tight end O.J. Howard (still looking for his first touchdown of the season) could be called upon to take advantage of that.

“We’ve been working really hard over the summer and throughout this whole entire year,” Mullaney said. “Whenever our number gets called on, we’re there to make plays. It doesn’t matter the situation or the game. First quarter, fourth quarter, doesn’t matter.”

This won’t be the first time Alabama’s faced a stacked box with a prodigious defensive line. Arkansas plays much the same way, and were the only Power 5 opponent to hold Derrick Henry to less than 100 yards. Jake Coker had his best game of the season, throwing for 262 yards on a 73 percent completion rate.

Coker’s teammates call him one of the hardest competitors they’ve ever met. If the Spartans do win the battle up front, the Mobile native could make that a Pyrrhic victory.

“[Coker’s] a great competitor, and anything he’s playing, he’s going to do what he can to win,” Mullaney said. “Like I said, he just wants to win.”