ARLINGTON, TEXAS — Michigan State got in the College Football Playoff after freshman running back L.J. Scott twisted, turned, lunged and reached for a game-winning touchdown. Freshman receiver Calvin Ridley gave Alabama the big-play threat it desperately needed this season.
A year after both were still in high school, Scott and Ridley could now play significant roles in the Cotton Bowl, a College Football Playoff semifinal game on New Year's Eve.
Scott watched the end of the Spartans' comeback victory over Baylor in the last Cotton Bowl while on a bus in California after practice for a high school all-star game. He is now trying to help them get to the national championship game.
"I didn't think that I would be in a situation like that," Scott said. "But I definitely knew for sure that I would be there (at Michigan State) next year, and I had an opportunity to eventually be on stages like that."
With his 1-yard TD run in the final minute of the Big Ten championship game, capping that season-saving 22-play drive against Iowa, the 233-pound freshman running back already has a highlight that will go down in Spartans history.
"To watch him mature in the role, the player he's become on this team, he's a special player," left tackle Jack Conklin said. "He's a tough kid. ... He spins out of something and runs somebody over, and you go, 'the kid's a freshman?"'
With Amari Cooper gone to the NFL after 124 catches for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns last season for Alabama, and Robert Foster out with a shoulder injury after only three games this year, top receiving prospect Ridley emerged for the Tide.
With 75 catches, Ridley already has more catches than both Cooper and Julio Jones had as Tide freshmen. Ridley's 893 yards put him within reach of the first-year totals by Cooper (1,000) and Jones (924).
Asked if he was surprised at what he has accomplished so quickly, or if he expected to do so, Ridley responded, "it's kind of both. I knew I could play like that."
Ridley's breakout game was against Georgia, when he had five catches for 120 yards, a week before nine catches for 140 yards against Arkansas. The 6-foot-1, 188-pound receiver had a 55-yard catch surrounded by Florida defenders in the SEC championship game, when he had eight catches for 102 yards.
Quarterback Jake Coker said he knew on the first day of summer workouts that Ridley was going to be a special player because of how he moved around and caught the ball.
"His attitude was really the thing that surprised me the most," Coker said. "Just the way he came in, a big-time recruit, he just had the mentality that he wanted to learn, didn't have any ego, or anything like that. He wanted to learn and play and help the team, and that's what he's doing right now."
During separate Cotton Bowl media day sessions at AT&T Stadium on Tuesday, Scott and Ridley both spoke about their desire to remain humble. Both are soft-spoken, a distinct contrast to how emphatic they play on the field.
"I just try to stay focused, try to stay on the right path that I want to stay on," Scott said. "I just want to take care of my family."
Scott had 22 carries in the Big Ten championship game, 14 of those coming on that final drive. But he said he doesn't go out of his way to watch the highlight touchdown, when he was hit several times, but kept turning and twisting before reaching the ball over the line.
"I only watch it if somebody like tags me in on Instagram or Twitter, something like that," he said. "I do enjoy it when I do see it, and sometimes I can't believe it's actually me that did it."