ARLINGTON, Texas - Wisconsin’s young offensive line knew they were tasked with facing a defense many pundits called one of, if not, the best, in the nation heading into AT&T Stadium Saturday night.
Imposing one's will on potential All-American candidates in junior defensive end A’Shawn Robinson, senior linebacker Reggie Ragland and a slew of other Alabama defenders with three new starters on the offensive line is a daunting objective.
Trying to generate a potent running attack without your best offensive player healthy for the majority of the game is, well, near impossible.
Not able to consistently move the Crimson Tide’s stout defense to spring the running backs to the second level, along with the loss of junior running back Corey Clement to a nagging groin injury, the Badgers’ rushing attack floundered to the tune of only 40 yards on 21 carries, bogging down the offense as a whole in a 35-17 season-opening defeat.
"I think they [Alabama] have really good players," Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. "I think we're weren't getting movement, and that's certainly an area we have to improve upon."
The biggest gains by the running backs were a pair of 5-yard runs, one by Clement and the other by redshirt junior Dare Ogunbowale. If not for a jet sweep by redshirt senior wide receiver Alex Erickson in the fourth quarter that went for 25 yards, the Badgers would have been held to 15 paltry yards.
The Badgers started using motion from the beginning of the game with redshirt seniors Austin Traylor and Derek Watt in trying to get numbers in Wisconsin’s advantage. The Crimson Tide’s linebackers weren’t fooled.
Ragland recorded 12 tackles, while junior linebacker Reuben Foster and sophomore linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton tallied 6 stops each. With senior defensive linemen Jarran Reed and his five tackles, Alabama’s defense continually stymied any progress Wisconsin’s offensive line tried to muster.
"They didn't do anything that we didn't prepare for," junior center Dan Voltz said. “They're really good players. They got a good scheme … and we just have to play better. Simple as that."
The praise for Alabama’s front seven was paramount throughout the postgame locker room, though it wasn’t an excuse for their own lack of execution.
“They got a lot of guys that’ve played a lot of football,” senior fullback Derek Watt said. “Really experienced and they’re a big front seven. They played well tonight. I give them all the credit in the world, and we had some things not go our way. We just got a lot of young guys on offense, and we got to look at that film. Every position -- including myself -- and we got to look at that and improve, and we’ll be just fine.”
Part of the problem was the lack of push generated by Wisconsin’s line, a lack of consistency that head coach Paul Chryst admitted altered the play calling. With injuries running rampant at camp on the line, the starting line UW used in the opener had been practicing together in their current positions for roughly a week. The number of full contact practices they had gone through together was even less.
“I think we have a lot of things to clean up,” said junior right guard Walker Williams, who got his first career start. "We definitely didn’t play up to our full potential. It definitely wasn’t a matter of screening or effort. There were some missed calls and some missed assignments that came up huge that could have been game changers for us.”
Compounding the futility of the offensive line was the loss of Clement, who said he tweaked his groin during Tuesday’s practice. Though the adrenaline initially helped mask the uncomfortable nature of the injury, Clement described the feeling as "awkward" after receiving a few hits.
Instead of risking further injury, the decision was made to limit Clement’s work and give Ogunbowale and redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal the bulk of the snaps the rest of the way, though they combined to gain only 23 yards on nine carries.
“I didn’t think we were getting movement,” said Chryst. “That’s certainly an area that we need to improve upon.”