Jacob Coker was revealed as the starting quarterback for Alabama after a spring and summer of mystery, and Coker delivered in a big way as Alabama took at 35-17 win over Wisconsin to open the 2015 season.
Although third-ranked Alabama got four of its five touchdowns on rushing plays -- three from Derrick Henry and one from Kenyan Drake – it took the passing of Coker to open things up and allow the Crimson Tide to roll to the comfortable victory. Cokerwas 15-21 for 213 yards and a touchdown – a 17-yard pass to Robert Foster – with no interceptions, before he gave way in the fourth quarter to Cooper Bateman and to Alec Morris for the final series of mop-up work.
Alabama next plays in Bryant-Denny Stadium next Saturday, hosting Middle Tennessee State at 3 p.m. CDT.
Henry rushed 13 times for 147 yards, including touchdown runs of 37 yards in the first quarter, and 56 yards and 2 yards in the third quarter. Drake, who had 10 carries for 17 yards, finished the scoring for Bama with a nice 43-yard run after it appeared he had been stopped at the line of scrimmage. He broke out and went down the right sidelines to put the game away with just over eight minutes remaining in the game.
Alabama was able to take a 14-7 halftime lead, which was probably about what most were expecting – a low-scoring game. But what had been expected was both teams hammering it out with the running game, Derrick Henry for Alabama and Corey Clement for Wisconsin.
It was the passing of Coker for Alabama and Joel Stave for Wisconsin that moved the chains.
Both teams were stiffled on their first possessions, the Tide and Badgers both feeling out the defense with inside running. On Bama’s second possession, starting at its 10-yard line, Coker hit back-to-back 22-yard passes, first to Robert Foster and next to Richard Mullaney. He connected with Foster three plays later for a first down at the Wisconsin 37.
From there, on a fourth-and-one play, it was back to the running game, a handoff to Henry at left guard who broke through untouched for the touchdown. Alabama had gone 90 yards in six plays for the touchdown. Adam Griffith kicked it to 7-0, which is how it stood at the end of the first quarter.
Wisconsin had lost its top defensive player, strong safety Michael Caputo, on the first series of the game. He suffered a head injury and was ruled out for the remainder of the contest.
Wisconsin tied the game with a 9-play, 63-yard drive. Stave hit 6-7 passes in the march, which ended with a third-and-goal, six-yard touchdown pass to Alex Erickson. Rafael Gaglionone kicked the extra point to tie it at 7-7.
Bama responded with an 8-play, 88-yard drive that included overcoming an offensive pass interference call. A screen pass to Drake on a second-and-22 gained 33 yards. Coker then completed consecutive passes to Ardarius Stewart (13 yards), O.J. Howard (11 yards), and Foster for the 17-yard touchdown and the Tide was up 14-7, never to look back.
Foster finished as the leading receiver with 4 catches for 50 yards with Steward 4-44, Howard 3-37, and freshman Calvin Ridley 3-22.
The end of the first half was a comedy of kicking game errors. Alabama had gotten the ball back at its 13-yard line with just 1:15 to play. Coker took one long shot downfield for ArDarius Stewart, a pass that was broken up, and then the Tide failed to get a first down. On fourth down, usually reliable punter JK Scott had his second poor one. A very poor one, shanked out of bounds for only 20 yards. Stave completed a 23-yard pass to Erickson and the Badgers had a chip shot field goal opportunity left with three seconds to play. The kick by Rafael Gaglianone hit the right upright and came back, no good.
Alabama’s first possession of the second half put a dagger in Wisconsin’s back. After an incomplete pass, Henry took a handoff at left tackle and went 56 yards for the touchdown and a 21-7 lead.
After the Tide defense held the Badgers to three-and-out and Bama had the ball at midfield, it looked as if Alabama had a chance to put the game away. But it wasn’t a great possession for the Tide.
It started well with Coker hitting passes to Richard Mullaney for 16 and scrambling for a gain of 11, the Tide was set up at Wisconsin’s 21. But a false start, a delay of game, and a holding penalty sabotaged the drive. Griffin tried a 44-yard field goal that was wide left.
The Alabama defense had another good series, three-and-out, and Alabama got the ball back at its 33 with seven and a half minutes remaining in the third quarter.
A shovel pass to Drake gained 15, followed by passes to Howard for 21, Stewart for 16, and a 12-yard run by Drake. Henry ran it to a first-and-goal at the two, and then took it in for his third touchdown and a 28-7 lead with just over five minutesto play in the third quarter.
Wisconsin got a field goal just before the end of the third period to make it 28-10. The Badgers benefitted from penalties on both Alabama and Wisconsin. The drive got started with a 15-yard pass interference call against the Tide and ended with the Badgers missing a field goal but getting a second chance on it because Wisconsin was guilty of a false start. Gaglianone made the 43-yarder.
Bateman took over at quarterback and took Bama on a nice drive, but it ended with Griffith missing on a 39-yard field goal.
Alabama’s defense held the Badgers on another three-and-out, and the offense responded with a three-and-in. It didn’t start well from the Wisconsin 27 – a loss of three yards, a holding penalty, and a loss of two yards making it third-and-26 at the Wisconsin 43. A Drake run up the middle looked doomed to no yardage, but Drake broke out of the pile, went outside, and flew down the right sideline for the touchdown and a 35-10 lead halftway through the fourth quarter.
Wisconsin got a quick touchdown in response, taking just three and a half minutes to go 75 yards with Stave hitting Robert Wheelright for a three-yard touchdown.
Alabama dominated team statistics with 27 first downs to 17 for the Badgers. Bama had 37 rushes for 238 yards, while Wisconsin had 21 carries for 40 yards. Bama completed 22-29 passes for 264 yards with no interceptions, while Stave was good on 26-39 for 228 yards and one interception for the Badgers.
Total offense for Alabama was 66 plays for 502 yards (7.6 per play) and Wisconsin 60 plays for 268 yards (4.5 per play).
There were no fumbles in the game. Tide safety Eddie Jackson had an interception and 41-yard return that allowed Alec Morris to enter at quarterback and run out the clock on the win.
Alabama had a bad night for penalties with 11 for 120 yards, while Wisconsin was flagged 5 times for 50 yards.
It may be that the biggest surprise – and disappointment – in the game for Alabama was the punting of sophomore JK Scott. The 2014 leading punter in the nation had four opportnities against Wisconsin and managed only a 36.8 yard average.
Alabama had a number of outstanding defensive performers. Reggie Ragland was in on 12 tackles. Jackson and Shaun Hamilton were in on six each. Freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick was in on five tackles and had a sack and a pass break-up. Jonathan Allen had two sacks and Dalvin Tomlinson broke up three passes, Cyrus Jones two.