GLENDALE, Arizona – The first half of national championship game was not going well for Jake Coker.
The Alabama quarterback was sacked four times as the teams were tied 14-14 at halftime. Coach Nick Saban was not happy.
"The quarterback has to get rid of the ball," Saban said at halftime. "You can't hold the ball and try to make a play every time. Throw the check down, do what we have to do, but don't take negative plays."
The second half was a much different story. Coker threw two touchdowns to tight end O.J. Howard and ended up setting a career high in yards (335) as Alabama beat Clemson 45-40 for its fourth national title in seven years.
The key, Coker said, was quicker-developing plays called by offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
"Just as the game went on, Coach Kiffin started calling plays that were a little quicker," Coker said. "It was easier to see; I didn't have to have as much time for everything to develop, so that was him making the great calls."
Coker had a hand in the offensive success too. As Alabama was trailing in the fourth quarter 24-21, Coker found wide receiver ArDarius Stewart for a 38-yard gain down the sidelines. It was a perfectly thrown ball that Stewart grabbed before falling out of bounds.
Coker didn't see the catch. He had released the ball just before he got hit in the legs from his blind side.
"I threw it a little bit earlier than I wanted to but it worked out and as soon as I let go I didn't know what happened," Coker said. "I just heard the left side of the stadium go nuts so that's how I knew it was complete thank goodness."
The completion led to a game-tying field goal. Then, on the ensuing kickoff, the Tide successfully completed an onside kick. Two plays later, Coker found Howard for a 53-yard touchdown. Clemson never led again.
The first touchdown pass Coker completed to Howard was thanks to a busted coverage from Clemson. On Alabama's first third-quarter possession, Howard lined up behind an Alabama receiver. There was only one Clemson back in the vicinity.
The receiver stayed short on the pass play. Howard went long. An easy touchdown resulted.
"I saw the corner and I was like – I saw him and I was like 'No way,' like 'Oh my God,'" Coker said. "Just let it go and O.J. did his thing."
Coker had the best game of his career in the Tide's 38-0 Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State. He completed 25-of-30 passes for 286 yards and two scores as the Spartans focused on Derrick Henry. While his yardage stats Monday night were higher, he wasn't as efficient as he was in the semifinal.
"When you win the national championship for Alabama, that's about all you can ask for," Coker said.
The Alabama native, who transferred to the program following the 2013 season, also called the win a dream come true. Though that dream that might have been a little hard to consider realistic earlier in the season.
Coker said after Monday night's game that he and Kiffin didn't always get along throughout the season. But after the Ole Miss game – Alabama's only loss on the season and a game that Coker didn't start – that there was a realization the two had to make things work. And things started to change a week later against Louisiana-Monroe as Coker threw three touchdown passes.
"And after [Ole Miss] we just realized we had to put everything together no matter what," Coker said. "Because [Kiffin]'s a West Coast guy, I'm South Alabama. We're a little different, the ways we think and all that stuff, but eventually we put it together and I love the guy. He's done so much for me now that we've kind of figured everything out and came to an understanding, and now we appreciate the way we go about things. It's become a real special thing as the season's gone on."
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