The battle of the narratives will collide this New Year’s Eve when Alabama faces off against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. On one side you have a program that has been the face of the SEC’s dynasty in college football over the last decade, Alabama. On the other, you have Michigan State, a team crowned champions of what many people believe is the best top-to-bottom conference this season in the Big Ten.
As if the allurement of a playoff semifinal wasn’t enough, there will be no shortage of talent or household names to drum up interest in this one. It’s realistic to believe 10 players in this game could go in the first two rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft.
The two talented rosters make for not only important but exciting key matchups to look forward to and analyze. The first is how Michigan State’s quarterback Connor Cook will fair against the best defense he’s played to date. MSU has faced top-25 defenses like Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa, but what do the tendencies from those games tell us about where Cook could find success and where he could be in trouble versus Alabama?
The second most important matchup is previewing how the reigning Heisman winner, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, can continue to be effective against increased competition this late in the year.
Let’s start with the more pressing matchup, one that has to go MSU’s way if the Spartans intend to win: Cook finding success versus the Crimson Tide’s defense.
Cook versus off coverage
In a pro-style offense, pre-snap reads are key because more time is used to properly drop back or execute a play action, which means there’s less time for a quarterback’s eyes to be downfield going through progressions. Part of what makes Cook such a great quarterback is his ability to predict what he’s going to see once his drop back is complete.
There are many types of coverage assignments in both zone and man schemes, but they all have to fall under two categories in the pre-snap stage of the play: press coverage and off coverage. Normally, when a quarterback sees press coverage, his receiver is going to be matched up in man defense. On the flip side, most off coverage (or soft coverage) looks tend to give away some sort of Cover 3 or Cover 4 where the field is divided into segments rather than player assignments.
All of that is background information for a few plays we’re going to go over when evaluating Cook’s tendencies as a quarterback — in order to judge how he reacts, you first have to understand what and why he’s thinking the way he is.
The first screenshot above is an example of off coverage. Michigan was trying to get added pressure near the line of scrimmage, and with less bodies in coverage, they backed their cornerbacks off a few yards to ensure they didn’t get beat deep down the field.
Cook loves when defenses play off of his receivers because he knows how to exploit it. The vine above showed the play was a successful comeback route to the outside, and if the play wasn’t designed this way originally, Cook would have audibled to give it that option.
The screenshot above will show another example of Cook recognizing off coverage and exploiting it to the sideline.
Though the catch was dropped, the design worked to perfection because of Cook’s handling of the situation. The play action brought the extra defender down into the box to stop the potential handoff, but after that Cook rolled right to open space. As the fullback moved across the flat to drop the other linebacker down to cover him, Cook wasted no time knowing where his best option is going to be.
Soft coverage against Cook is not the way to go for longterm success. He’s too good at recognizing the limitations of defenders when they’re asked to cover space and not a man, and he’s excellent at knowing when and where his receivers will have space before the play even begins.
Luckily for Alabama, the only time they really use off coverage is when they’re up big or the situation still allows it to be their advantage. Their defensive line is so good that they rarely need to rush more than four, and because of this, they let their corners play straight up on receivers, mostly in press coverage.
Cook versus press coverage
Since we know Alabama is going to respect Cook’s arm yet still try to be aggressive in the secondary, let’s see how Cook has dealt with different types of press coverages.
The play above highlights the match up to the bottom on of the screen where Jourdan Lewis (one of the best cornerbacks in the country) was locked up with his receiver at the line of scrimmage.
The result of the play was an incompletion, but let’s take note of the tendencies around it. The first thing we need to factor in is that at the snap Cook left his eyes straight on the safety to freeze him and not allow him to drift towards where Cook knew he was going to throw the ball. On fade passes, the window between the cornerback and the helping safety is everything. Cook did himself a favor (as he often does) by looking off the defender so the throw he already knew he was going to make would have a larger target for him to drop the pass in.
Though the pass was incomplete, due mostly to the ball being under thrown, a takeaway here is that this is how Cook operates as a quarterback. He has no fear when making any throw on the field as long as he believes it’s the right one. When NFL draft writers and scouts talk about Cook being able to make “all the throws”, what they’re referencing is plays like the one above. Fade passes are some of the most difficult throws in the game because they take excellent timing and touch. Cook missed here, but he connects on them more than any quarterback Alabama has faced to date and more often than most signal callers in the country.
Difficult throws such as fade routes and out routes are usually taken by receivers near the sideline, but Michigan State likes to take those same routes and apply them to slot receivers as well.
This is one of Cook’s favorite passes to throw, noted by how many times I’ve seen him go for it throughout the year. Though, again, the pass was an incompletion (MSU really needs to work on that) there was no hesitation in Cook’s decision. In fact, if you can see it in the screenshot, Cook actually pointed out the slot man before the snap to let him know this was his route to catch.
When Cook sees his opening, he has all the confidence in the world that he can make the throw no matter the distance or difficulty. Blitzing won’t affect that confidence either as he’s one of the calmest quarterbacks under pressure. He’ll force some throws that Alabama could have a fight for in the air, and it will be up to the play of the secondary to keep MSU under 21 points.
Cook on the run
If your memory serves you well, there was a recurring theme we saw with some of Cook’s passes in the Vines above and that is that he was often rolling to his right out of the pocket. This wasn’t by chance. Michigan State likes to make the defense move and shift. It allows Cook to further evaluate what type of coverage the defense is in, and it also grants him space and momentum to make throws. Sparty isn’t afraid to run read-options with Cook either, but I think they’ll temper that a bit as they would like him to make it to the fourth quarter with all of their players in one piece.
Watch for Alabama to run some kind of contain package with either a slot corner or linebacker Reuben Foster to limit how far Cook can move on those roll outs. Kirby Smart isn’t afraid to put safety Eddie Jackson on a receiver assignment, and doing that could free up a containing defender. That might throw Cook off his rhythm.
Fearing Derrick Henry
Cook versus Alabama’s defense will be the main matchup to watch for, and the matchup that will carry the most weight in the final score. However, we can’t forget that the Crimson Tide are bringing the Heisman trophy winner to Dallas.
Stopping Alabama’s running game is simple (he says from behind his computer screen). You just have to be stronger, faster, and instinctive at most, if not all, positions in the box — all right, that’s not so simple.
Earlier in the year, interior pressure really got to Alabama. The play above was one of many where Ole Miss’ defense attacked with speed and confidence to overwhelm Alabama’s offensive line. Though the Crimson Tide are better in the trench now then they were back then, the main difference, I believe, is in Henry’s anticipation and reaction. By the time he realized the middle is not the way to go, it was too late, and his bounce to the outside was tripped up. That can counter inside pressure on some occasions.
Let’s look at how a similar play resulted in the SEC championship game against Florida.
I’ll first note there aren’t the same amount of bodies clogging the A gap in this play, but no two plays are going to be exactly alike. My main take away here is how quickly Henry realized he needed to improvise from the designed gap, and within his first two steps, he was already changing direction. Put that up against the previous play and the difference is obvious.
Working off of that, Michigan State isn’t strong on the inside without help. Here’s an example of how they’re often too spaced out to contain a split zone run up the middle — something Alabama runs effectively and often.
But, I don’t assume Michigan State will be playing Alabama like they did Indiana. Instead, I see them playing more like they did against Ohio State. Even stat sheet scouts can tell you MSU did everything they could to stop the Buckeyes’ rushing attack. Here’s how they did that.
Watch how fast the Spartan defenders close in on the ball once it’s handed off. That’s the kind of aggression Ole Miss played with. That’s how the Rebels were able to contain Henry (to a point). However, there’s something I noticed before that play even happened that might tell the tale of how MSU could get caught.
In order to not get beat like they did versus Indiana, MSU has to sell out hard for the run. They have to go into each play assuming it’s a run unless the formation tells them otherwise. That’s what they did against Ohio State. In the screenshot above, we notice that all but one defender had his eyes in the backfield at the point of the snap.
Michigan State is essentially going to give Alabama’s receivers a window of a second or two where they’re not the main focus of play. That’s what I think hurts them the most in the early portions of the first or second half. Alabama’s going to run the ball, but offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has done a great job so far this season of using Henry as a threat as much as a weapon. I see Alabama using its receivers in quick routes to emphasize yards after catch the way Ohio State did not.
Once that happens, the middle of the trench gets less cluttered, and I don’t think Michigan State has the strength in the middle like Ole Miss did to neutralize the run game for very long. Henry will be the focal point of Alabama’s offense, but the way he doesn’t get the ball could mean just as much as they way he does.