No receiver had ever gone over the 200-yard mark in an Iron Bowl before Amari Cooper’s 224-yard performance on Saturday night. No player had ever tallied more than 10 receptions and two touchdowns in an Iron Bowl before the Alabama junior recorded 13 catches and three touchdowns.
In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of college football showcases, Cooper’s prime-time performance almost certainly earned him an invitation to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
“That would be a great thing, to be invited to New York,” said Cooper, a man of few words. When asked if he had done enough to earn the invitation as one of the top four candidates for the trophy awarded to the nation’s top collegiate player, his answer was just as concise. “I don’t know,” he said. “Hopefully.”
It’s not like Auburn didn’t know it was coming. Cooper entered the game as the Crimson Tide’s career leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns and torched the Tigers for 109 yards as a freshman in 2012 and 178 yards as a sophomore in 2013.
“He’s one of the better playmakers in college football and he showed that,” Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn said. “Obviously, he had a lot of yards and we did double-team him some and mixed it up. The challenging thing they have is that they have a good running game and other good receivers, too.”
That’s the reason Blake Sims said his receiver was so open on touchdown passes of 17 yards in the first quarter, 39 yards in the third quarter and 75 yards later in the quarter.
“People don’t realize that we have Christion Jones and DeAndrew White out there and they make great plays, too,” Sims said. “I think the defense realizes we don’t just focus on No. 9 (Cooper), we also have No. 22 (Jones) and No. 2 (White). When you’ve got great players like that, it gives Cooper the opportunity to get open.”
Sims probably didn’t remember that five other receivers combined for seven catches, roughly half of Cooper’s record-setting total. Of course, Auburn’s porous defense allowed Cooper to stand out. A year after recording the longest touchdown reception in Iron Bowl history with a 99-yard catch from A.J. McCarron, he recorded the second longest on Saturday with his 75-yard grab from Sims.
“They played a lot of man,” Cooper said. “On the first long (touchdown reception), they were in man, on the second one they were in man and on the third one they were in ‘cover three.’”
The always-elusive Cooper was open all night, saving the best performance for what likely is his final Iron Bowl performance. He became the only player in the history of the series to record a 100-yard performance three times in his career. No one else in a storied rivalry that includes names such as Julio Jones, Dennis Bailey, Ozzie Newsome, Terry Beasley, Ray Perkins, Frank Sanders and lawyer Tillman has a player ever done it more than once.
“You never know where he’s at,” Alabama safety Landon Collins said, describing the difficulty opposing defensive backs face. “His route running is precise. You never know what kind of route he’s going to run because of how he moves. That’s just ‘Coop.’”
And even if he applies for early entry in the National Football League draft after this season, as expected, the junior from Miami already has shattered the career records for Iron Bowl participants. Julio Jones had the career yardage record with 318 yards in three Iron Bowls (2008-09-10). Cooper’s performance on Saturday gives him 511 yards. He also broke Jones’ career reception record of 22, grabbing 24 over the last three years, and averaged 21.3 yards per catch, breaking the record (minimum 12 receptions) previously held by Bailey, who averaged 18.6 yards per catch in 1969-70-71.
Not bad for a receiver that was supposedly ailing after taking a hit on the knee in last week’s win over Western Carolina.
“He certainly had a great game today,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said. “The guy played through a lot of injuries today. He was really kind of hurt and he did a great job competing out there.”
Saban was impressed, which isn’t easily accomplished. Now we’ll see if the Heisman Trophy officials were as impressed as everyone else who was watching on Saturday night.