ARLINGTON, Texas - The outcome was expected but unfolded in a way that could prove valuable in the weeks to come for the University of Wisconsin.
With two of its most important pieces knocked out from the game, No.20 Wisconsin’s valiant effort kept them close with No.3 Alabama through a half before ultimately getting run over in a 35-17 defeat in front of 64,279 fans at AT&T Stadium.
Rest assured there will be silver linings from being able to compete without senior safety Michael Caputo for all of three plays and junior tailback Corey Clement trying to gut through a groin injury, but those likely won’t sink until well after the Badgers’ charter flight lands back in Madison Sunday morning.
The thoughts for now are on a Wisconsin defense allowing Alabama to roll up 502 yards of offense, seeing the Crimson Tide’s ultra-talented front seven hold the Badgers to 40 total rushing yards and being unable to stop the wrecking ball that was junior tailback Derrick Henry.
In his first game as Alabama’s featured back, Henry made an early statement with 147 yards on 13 carries (11.3 yards) and scoring on runs of 37, 56 and 2, the latter two coming during a third-quarter stretch when the Tide was rolling up 21 straight points to take full control of the game.
“He’s a great player,” said safety Leo Musso. “Big, big back. They’re a great team.”
Wisconsin showed signs that it can be great, too. A once beleaguered passing game showed signs of life with senior quarterback Joel Stave poking holes in Alabama’s defense and completing 14 of his first 16 passes. He finished with 228 yards on 26 of 39 passing, two touchdowns and one late interception.
“I loved the way he competed, and I thought he did some good things,” said Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst. “I think he was seeing the field well. The windows close pretty quick with this group, but I thought he was decisive and thought he did some good things.”
Junior cornerback Sojourn Shelton started to regain his form from two years ago with suffocating one-on-one coverage down the field, while outside linebackers Joe Schobert (team-high 13 tackles, four for loss and two sacks) and showed why they are considered among the best tandems in college football.
“I definitely think, especially on the defensive side of the ball, we controlled the line of scrimmage at times and played very well,” said Schobert. “We were able to get negative plays and get Alabama off the field.”
Even with Caputo on the sidelined and Clement limited to 16 yards on eight carries four days after aggravating his left groin injury in practice, Wisconsin had a golden opportunity to tighten the screws on Alabama going into the locker room. Generating nearly all of its offense through the air, the Badgers benefited from a shaky punt and a 22-yard completion to Alex Erickson to set up a 34-yard field goal try for Rafael Gaglianone.
The sophomore, who had ended the 2014 season making 14 straight field goals, clanked his attempt off the right upright to keep the score at 14-7. Instead of it giving Wisconsin momentum heading into a second half in which they would receive the kickoff, everything went terribly wrong. The Badgers first three drives of the second half consisted of 11 plays, 12 yards and one first down.
“When you miss out on points it’s always big,” said Erickson. “You don’t know how close the game is going to be down the stretch. You don’t want to take any loss points for granted. Obviously it hurt.”
On the flip side, Alabama’s first three drives generated 14 points and a missed field goal. By the time Gaglianone finally got UW back on the board with a 43-yard field goal, the Tide were rolling after choosing to spread out the attack to stretch what had quickly become a young Wisconsin defensive interior.
“Communication just broke down,” said Schobert. “They started shifting the running back a lot more that may have put a little stress on some communication. I didn’t see anything that was drastically different that changed (momentum). It just comes down to communication, playing gap-sound football and we need to improve on that.”
With the big litmus test fresh in the memory bank, Wisconsin could be geared for a run. Home for the next four games, playing three nonconference opponents that went 9-28 last season before the conference opener, Wisconsin schedule currently doesn’t feature another ranked opponent.
It’s a chance to take what the Crimson Tide showed them and run with it, which would be the ultimate lesson received on what turned from a promising to a disappointing night.
“They (Alabama) were the better team, yet I told the players after the game that I felt there were some things that we can build on,” said Chryst. “I am proud of a lot of guys (who) put themselves out there the whole game … There are some areas that clearly we have got to improve upon for us to be the team that we want to be.”