ARLINGTON, Texas — Alabama may have discovered its QB1 in a 35–17 win against Wisconsin on Saturday. Of course, Jake Coker and the offense got plenty of help from a defensive front seven that might have been even nastier than expected.
Here are three thoughts on the Crimson Tide’s season-opening win:
1. Coker takes the reigns
Alabama coach Nick Saban finally revealed his starting quarterback when Coker, a fifth-year senior who transferred in 2014 after graduating from Florida State, took the field with the first-team offense. At various times this off-season, five different Alabama quarterbacks got cracks at winning the starting job. Coker, who was beaten out by Blake Sims entering last season, got sacked on his first series but settled down quickly.
With Crimson Tide tailback Derrick Henry (147 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns) gaining huge chunks of yards behind sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson and redshirt freshman left guard Ross Pierschbacher, Coker didn’t have to be Superman. He only needed to be efficient, and he was. Coker made sure Alabama was in the correct play, and he took advantage of the defense’s respect for Henry to slice up the Badgers on play-action. Before giving way to sophomore Cooper Bateman late in the third quarter, Coker completed 15 of 21 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown.
2. Alabama’s front seven too strong for Wisconsin
The Badgers, who pride themselves in their ability to enforce their will on the ground, were forced to abandon the run because of Alabama’s front seven. Wisconsin averaged 46.3 carries and 6.9 yards per carry in 2014, but by the end of Saturday’s third quarter, the Badgers had run 17 times and thrown 21. Those carries had netted only 17 yards, so you don’t need your calculator to figure Wisconsin’s average.
Alabama defensive ends A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen routinely clogged gaps, and Crimson Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland took advantage by dragging down runners who had precious little room to move. Corey Clement, who was supposed to be the heir apparent to Melvin Gordon, carried eight times for 16 yards before leaving with a groin injury. Meanwhile, Alabama end Dalvin Tomlinson swatted down several Joel Stave passes.
Stave had success early against Alabama’s secondary, completing five of six passes for 59 yards while leading the Badgers on a 63-yard second-quarter touchdown drive. But once it became clear that Alabama could rush four and shut down the Badgers’ running game, the Crimson Tide focused on shutting down the pass. After allowing Stave to complete nine of his first 11 passes, the defense constricted and forced incompletions on eight of Stave’s next 20 attempts.
3. Bateman’s presence could be thorn in side of future opponents
Unlike in Alabama’s season opener last year, a second quarterback got a chance to play significant snaps, and that’s where things get interesting.
Last year, Coker relieved Sims only for a few garbage-time handoffs because the West Virginia game was relatively tight most of the way. Saturday, Alabama had a commanding lead late in the third quarter, and that allowed offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to use Bateman. A 6'3", 220-pounder from Murray, Utah, Bateman allows the Tide to run an offense far more similar to the one Sims ran last year. Bateman’s speed will make defenses respect the zone read, and it allowed the Tide to put a completely different look on video. Even if Saban and Kiffin decide Coker is their man going forward, they’ve now forced future opponents to spend time preparing for two distinctive schemes.