Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Alabama football team historically has been synonmous with defense. But when Missouri takes on the Crimson Tide in Saturday afternoon’s Southeastern Conference championship game, the Tigers will have their hands just as full on the other side of the ball.
Alabama, which in 2011 topped LSU 9-6 in the so-called “Game of the Century,” has seen an offensive resurgence in recent years, averaging 36.42 points per game since 2012.
And there has been no bigger offensive threat for the Crimson Tide than junior receiver Amari Cooper.
Cooper has more than 3,300 career receiving yards, including 1,573 yards on 103 catches this year. His 13-catch, 224-yard performance last week against Auburn established him as a candidate for this year’s Heisman Trophy.
“I think, if you look at the numbers (when) he’s touched the ball and everybody else has touched the ball, it would be wise to pay attention to what he does,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “But everybody’s saying the same thing, and guess what? He keeps catching a lot of balls.”
Pinkel compares Cooper to Jeremy Maclin, an two-time all-American at Missouri who is having a career year with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“A very smooth athlete, can run, explosive, runaway speed, … great catches,” Pinkel said of Cooper. “… He’s a guy, without question, that can have a huge impact on any game he plays in, and honestly, in our business, you like to see players like that. It’s very, very impressive.”
Pinkel said it helps that Alabama’s offense is structured to allow the quarterback the option of passing to Cooper on most plays.
“He can go to him probably about any time he wants to,” Pinkel said. “And that’s just good coaching.”
Missouri cornerback Aarion Penton returned to the starting spot in the depth chart this week after a suspension and a hamstring injury. He knows he’ll have his hands full this week.
“I’d say the biggest challenge is plain and simple. It’s just fundamentals,” Penton said, “and that’s what we’re big on here. I’m very ready to accept the challenge.”
He and fellow starter Kenya Dennis will share the load of covering Cooper. Dennis plays on the left side, Penton or sophomore John Gibson play on the right, and Dennis doesn’t expect they will shift based on where Cooper plays. He said the key will be understanding Cooper will get his catches but limiting the big plays.
“I look forward to the challenge,” he said. “It’s a great challenge for me and also the rest of my defensive backs. … Cornerbacks love the great receivers, you know? It’s your chance to test how good you really are, and I think will be a great game.”
The Missouri secondary wouldn’t complain if its defensive line, fronted by ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden, was able to get the same type of the pressure it has brought all year.
“It’s kind of like being baby-sitted, with those guys up front,” Dennis said. “I mean, sometimes you get caught looking at those guys just do their thing and you’ll forget to do your job, but it’s amazing to have those guys in front of you and it makes your job a lot easier.”
Ray is happy to help out.
“Controlling the line of scrimmage and having a good pass rush is definitely a game-changing thing,” he said. “So it’s our job as defensive linemen to make it uncomfortable for the quarterback to deliver the ball to the receivers.”
The Crimson Tide offense, coached by first-year Alabama coordinator Lane Kiffen, brings more threats than just Cooper. Quarterback Blake Sims has presented new challenges for Alabama’s opponents this season as a dual-threat player.
“They look like a completely different team, and I think it’s because they’ve got a more versatile quarterback this year,” Dennis said. “And they’ve got a lot of good receivers on the outside. They’re able to do a lot of things with their offense.”
All this, of course, while dealing with the pressure of playing the No. 1 team in the country in the amped-up atmosphere of the Georgia Dome.
“When we talk as a team, we always say it’s just another game,” Penton said. “It’s another team, and we’re not going to let a big-name school intimidate us, because they’ve been there several times. We’re going to step up to them and do what we do. I just feel like we’ve been here before, and the goal on our list is to bring a championship back, and I feel that we’re going to bring that back.”