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Why Calvin Ridley vs. Mackensie Alexander could be key matchup for Alabama, Clemson

Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander reacts after blocking

Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander reacts after blocking a pass intended for South Carolina wide receiver D.J. Neal on Nov. 28. Credit: USA Today / Joshua S. Kelly

PHOENIX — Every defensive coordinator in his right mind tries to stack the box at the line of scrimmage to stop Alabama’s powerful Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry. Michigan State did it and got burned badly in the Cotton Bowl when wide receiver Calvin Ridley exploited single coverage to catch eight passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns.

But as Clemson’s shutdown cornerback Mackensie Alexander is quick to point out, the Spartans’ pass defense doesn’t compare to what Crimson Tide quarterback Jake Coker and Ridley will see from the Tigers in the College Football Playoff championship game Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.

“Our defense and Michigan State’s defense are two different defenses,” Alexander said yesterday. “It’s not even close. We’ve got the best defense in the country. We’re very multiple; we’re very flexible; we can adjust to any offense in the country. This ain’t nothing new.”

Ridley has drawn comparisons to former Alabama star Amari Cooper, who was a first-round pick by Oakland in last spring’s NFL Draft. But Alexander, a redshirt sophomore with first-round talent who is eligible for this year’s draft, didn’t hesitate to compare himself to Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis when it comes to shutdown ability. And he meant Revis in his prime when the top wide receivers in the game disappeared on “Revis Island.”

Although Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Alexander won’t necessarily “shadow” Ridley the whole game, the Tigers’ defense is predicated on being able to leave their corners in single coverage so they can commit more numbers to the line of scrimmage.

“I’ve got a lot of applause for my D-coordinator,” Alexander said. “He sees my ability and really trusts me. Most D-coordinators ain’t going to put a kid on an island like that. You think somebody else is going to put their job on the line like that?

“It’s basically what they do with Revis. I say Revis because he’s one of the best in the game at doing that. I watch Revis a lot. I admire what he does. There are only a handful of corners who can do what he does. You can tell he’s smart, he’s thinking, he knows what’s going on. That’s the biggest part. I know the ins and outs of the game. It’s all about having the edge over somebody.”

In Clemson’s Orange Bowl semifinal win over Oklahoma, Alexander took Sooners receiver Derrick Shepard out of the game until Shepard was moved to slot receiver. He ultimately had seven catches for a modest 87 yards, but little of that came against Alexander. Ridley acknowledged the difficulty of the matchup he faces.

“He’s a great DB,” Ridley said of Alexander. “My coaches have been telling me, and I’ve been watching him. He’s big and fast. I’ve got to play good. I feel like this is one of the deepest DB groups we’ve seen this year.”

Ridley might want to consider packing a pair of earmuffs. After Alexander thwarted one early deep pass to OU’s Shepard, he talked to him about it nearly all the way back to the huddle.

Clemson’s Venables isn’t a fan of trash-talking, but he understands the method to Alexander’s madness.

“He’s very confident, and he’s trying to get in somebody’s head a little bit,.” Venables said. “When you can, it’s really good . . . He loves the opportunity to match up when possible, and he loves to have that pressure on him. For two years, he’s performed at an elite level when the pressure has been on. He’s the first one to own mistakes. He’s harder on himself than a coach could ever be.”

Alexander deflects talk about the NFL Draft, saying his passion is more about the game than what the game can do for him. He vowed to let Ridley feel that passion.

“That’s what it’s all about is an attitude,” Alexander said. “Who wants it more? The game is me all day. So when I go out there, you can feel me, you can feel my heart out there. I let it go.”

No. 2 ’Bama (13-1) is a 7-point favorite over No. 1 Clemson (14-0), and Alexander admits the Tigers have a chip on their shoulder about that.

“We want it all,” Alexander said. “This is the perfect opportunity to knock them off the board. It’s all a brand thing. Everybody cares about the Alabama brand. I understand they’ve done it for a long time, but this is a new year, and it’s our time.”

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