Arlington, Texas — Michigan State reached higher this season, something it declared it would do a year ago when its season ended with a dramatic victory in the Cotton Bowl.
What the Spartans found out on Thursday, however, is that there is still a long way to go to reach the pinnacle of college football.
There was no thrilling comeback in this season’s version of the Cotton Bowl in front of 82,812 at AT&T Stadium as No. 2 Alabama dominated No. 3 Michigan State, 38-0, in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.
The victory sends Alabama (13-1) to the national championship game where it will face Clemson, which beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, the first semifinal.
Michigan State (12-2) had its four-game bowl winning streak ended and it was the first time the Spartans have been shut out under coach Mark Dantonio. The last time Michigan State didn’t score came in a 14-0 loss to Michigan on Oct. 21, 2000.
It was also the first time Michigan State was shut out in a bowl game since the 1996 Sun Bowl, when current Alabama coach Nick Saban was at the helm for the Spartans, who lost that game by the same 38-0 score to Stanford.
The margin meant little to the Spartans, however.
“Any way you cut it, at the end of the day if we were sitting in here and we lost by five points, people might be saying nice things about you a little bit more but we wouldn't feel any better,” Dantonio said. “So in the end, you take the loss. You deal with it. And I guess, like I've always said, you take some bad things with the good things that have happened to you before, too.
“So we didn't get it done collectively. That's as coaches. That's as players. That's as a program. But you remain focused on being positive, and you take the next step in life. And I think that's what you have to do.”
While some might liken the defeat to the 49-7 loss Michigan State suffered against Alabama in the 2011 Capital One Bowl, this one was tight into the second half.
But it was two key plays late in the second quarter that likely turned the game.
With the game scoreless, Alabama quarterback Jake Coker connected with wide receiver Calvin Ridley on a 50-yard pass to the Michigan State 1. A play later, Derrick Henry scored on a run to put Alabama up 7-0 with 5:36 left in the first half.
Michigan State followed by going three-and-out and Alabama answered with a 47-yard field goal from Adam Griffith.
But the Spartans put together their best drive of the half and were at the Alabama 12 with less than a minute to play. Connor Cook’s pass was intercepted by Cyrus Jones inside the 5, ending a scoring threat that proved to be Michigan State’s last.
“Completely my fault,” Cook said. “They clouded to the boundary and a safety over the top. Either touchdown or incomplete. I just let it slide. Threw it short obviously. Bad ball. Completely my fault.”
It was the fifth straight time Michigan State trailed a bowl game at halftime and the Spartans thought they could muster another comeback.
“Everyone was so optimistic in the locker room at halftime,” Cook said. “Everyone was positive. We've been in the situation before, and we felt like we were going to go out there and get things rolling. And that wasn't the case.”
It didn’t take long for Alabama to take control, opening the second half by going 75 yards on nine plays to extend its lead to 17-0 by taking advantage of two hands-to-the-face penalties on Michigan State. The scoring play was a 6-yard pass from Coker to Ridley that was originally ruled out of bounds but overturned by replay.
The Crimson Tide kept pouring it on in the third quarter, giving Michigan State nothing on offense before Jones returned a punt 57 yards for a touchdown to push the lead to 24-0 with 3:24 to play in the quarter.
“Had an opportunity to get some points at the end of the first half,” Dantonio said. “That didn't happen. … Then the punt return in the third quarter obviously sort of had us reeling a little bit. But still very, very proud of our football team. This is the first time in a while we've had this happen to us. So you got to pick up the pieces and move forward.”
Alabama kept rolling as Ridley and Coker connected for 50 yards again, this time for a touchdown with 2:20 left in the third quarter. The Crimson Tide capped things when Kenyan Drake picked up 58 yards on a run and Henry scored from 11 yards out on the next play.
Michigan State reached the Alabama 24 on its next drive — the deepest penetration of the second half — but turned the ball over on downs.
The Detroit News' Bob Wojnowski and Matt Charboneau break down MSU's 38-0 loss to Alabama on Thursday night and the 2015 season.
“I thought this was a great team win for us,” Saban said. “I thought Jake did a great job. But we made some big plays on offense. Defense certainly played well. The interception before the half was a big momentum swing for us, I think, in the game.”
Coker was 25-for-30 for 286 yards and two touchdowns while Ridley had eight catches for 138 yards and two scores. Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner, was held in check for the most part with 75 yards on 20 carries, though he scored twice.
As good as Alabama’s offense was, the defense was dominant, sacking Cook four times and holding Michigan State to 29 yards rushing. Cook finished 19-for-39 for 210 yards and two interceptions while the Spartans were 4-for-16 on third-down conversions.
“We just didn’t come out and play the way we usually do,” left tackle Jack Conklin said. “We shot ourselves in the foot. We were inside the 50 four times in the first half and didn’t score.
“We had so many three-and-outs that our defense was gonna get tired and that’s on us as an offense.”