Nov. 30, 2014
By Christopher Walsh
Throughout the 2014 season Nick Saban has been regularly asked about junior wide receiver Amari Copper and what he brings to the University of Alabama football team.
Actually, the coach has gotten so many questions about him that he’s run out of descriptive words to use with reporters. “Outstanding” was the staple for much of the season and then a couple of weeks ago Saban started using “phenomenal.”
After Saturday’s 55-44 victory over Auburn, during which Cooper established numerous program records while helping lead the Crimson Tide’s dramatic comeback, not even that may be sufficient.
“Cooper, what do you say about him?” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Sunday night during a teleconference with reporters regarding the upcoming SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
Regardless, it’s pretty obvious that the wide receiver is without peer, which might be the greatest compliment of all.
“Amari is not worthy of anyone comparing him to anybody else,” Saban said. “He is Amari Cooper. He has his own style. He’s a very competitive guy who works really, really hard. Has really good speed getting in and out of breaks. Works hard in the game to get open. Does a good job of executing, has made a lot of really big plays for us this year.
“I think he’s probably one of the best wide receivers in the country – I don’t get the opportunity to see them all – but he’s certainly been a dynamic player for our team and has made a great contribution to our season.”
This year’s edition of the Iron Bowl may have been the perfect example because as he heated up so did the Crimson Tide.
With his first reception, a 5-yard gain to help set up Alabama’s initial touchdown, Cooper established a new program record for career catches.
With three touchdown receptions, which tied the Crimson Tide single-game record, he broke his own single-season record of 11 set two years ago as a freshman. Cooper had previously tied his mark and now has 14.
With 224 receiving yards he tied his own single-game record, set against Tennessee earlier this season. His 14th career 100-yard game was another record, after being tied with DJ Hall (13, 2004-07).
Cooper also set numerous Iron Bowl records including for receiving yards in a game, and is the only player to have three 100-yard performances in the rivalry. He had 109 in 2012 and 178 last year, giving him 511 for his career, topping the all-time record held by Julio Jones (318, 2008-10).
Yet at halftime he had six receptions, but for 60 yards and a 17-yard touchdown.
“You know we didn’t throw the ball downfield that much in the first half,” Saban said. “The only time we did was a touchdown and I kept saying to Lane (Kiffin), `We made a lot of explosive plays throwing the ball downfield, let’s take some shots on these guys.’
“They’re certainly doing that to us and we’re not having much success. I thought a couple of those big plays really changed the momentum of the game.”
Saban thought Cooper’s 39-yard touchdown reception changed the momentum of the game early in the third quarter, and then he topped it with the 75-yard bomb.
“You never know what kind of route he’s going to run by the way he moves,” junior safety Landon Collins said. “That’s just Coop.”
Meanwhile, senior quarterback Blake Sims overcame three interceptions to go 20 of 27 for 312 yards, with four passing touchdowns and a rushing score. Junior running back T.J. Yeldon carved out 127 rushing yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns, and sophomore running back Derrick Henry helped put the game out of reach with a 25-yard score as Alabama had touchdowns on five straight second-half possessions.
The defense also played better in the second half, yielding just 46 rushing yards and fewer big pass plays as Alabama took control. So after a hot first half Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall completed 27-of-43 passes for a school record 456 yards, including 206 to Sammie Coates and 121 to D’haquille Williams … and lost.
The 99 points and 1,169 combined yards of total offense were both Iron Bowl records, and the 44 points for Auburn were the most points Alabama has ever allowed in a win.
Yet the biggest buzz after the game was about Cooper, who had pulled off arguably the greatest performance in Iron Bowl history despite wearing a knee brace.
“The brace actually helped me,” Cooper said. “It eased some of the pain.”
Cooper had sustained a bruised knee against Western Carolina and was pulled after making just three receptions last week. The precautions obviously worked as he had 13 catches against Auburn.
“The guy played through a lot of injuries,” Saban said.
With every reception Cooper adds to his other Crimson Tide records, and now had 103 catches for 1,573 yards for the season, and 207 receptions for 3,309 yards and 29 touchdowns over his career.
He’s second on both the Southeastern Conference season and career all-time yards lists. Cooper trails only Josh Reed’s 1,740 for LSU in 2001, when he too had Saban as a head coach, and Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews set the career mark over four years with 3,759 (2010-13).
Cooper has anywhere from two to three game remaining this season, beginning with Missouri, and Pinkel probably won’t try to defend him with mostly-single coverage like Auburn did.
“You’re not going to stop him,” the coach said. “He’s a great, great player. You try to limit the amount of damage they can do. I think that’s where you start.”
If Alabama wins it’ll head to the inaugural College Football Playoff, most likely in a semifinal matchup at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. Between those dates, though, Cooper will have a pit stop in Orlando for the presentation of the Biletnikoff Award for best receiver, which he’s already been named a finalist, and possibly New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“I hope to (go),” Cooper said. “That would be a great thing, to be invited to New York.”