By Alabama’s second drive Saturday, it was clear the Crimson Tide offense would at least be OK against Wisconsin, despite the absence of a clear leader at quarterback.
After all, it still had Derrick Henry, the bruising running back who sprinted to a 37-yard touchdown run to put Alabama ahead early in the game. On that same possession, though, something else happened: Jake Coker settled in.
The early winner of Alabama’s quarterback race, started the drive with four straight completions, advancing the Tide from its own 10-yard-line to Wisconsin’s 37. From there, on fourth and 1, Henry did his thing, busting through the middle and into the end zone.
Coker continued his thing, too, completing 15 of 21 passes for 213 yards, as he and Henry led No. 3 Alabama to a 35-17 win over No. 20 Wisconsin in the Advocare Classic at AT&T Stadium.
“[Coker] did a really good job,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He was accurate with the ball. He did a good job executing what we wanted to do. It created balance in our offense.”
The Tide took the first step back to the College Football Playoff, where they were eliminated in the semifinals last season.
If Alabama returns to the four-team bracket, there’s a chance it could come back to Arlington, where the Cotton Bowl will host one of this season’s semifinals Dec. 31.
Saturday, however, was about seeing what Coker could do. After transferring from Florida State, he sat behind Blake Sims for most of last season.
He didn’t inherit the starting job immediately, either. Before Saturday, it was still a race between Coker, sophomore Cooper Bateman and junior Alec Morris, an Allen graduate.
Coker, it turned out, was the pick for Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. But no one outside of the Tide locker room knew that until Coker trotted out for Alabama’s first snap.
Four consecutive runs by Henry, a 1-yard pass by Coker and a sack forced the Tide to punt.
But after Alabama (1-0) forced Wisconsin (0-1) to punt, and Coker engineered the Tide’s first scoring drive of the season. He looked even better later in the half, when Alabama went 88 yards in eight plays to break a 7-7 tie.
On that drive, Coker hit Kenyan Drake for a 33-yard gain on second and 22, and then completed three more passes in a row, the last a 17-yard touchdown to Robert Foster.
“I studied all week, and I felt real comfortable with the game plan,” Coker said. “Coach Kiffin, the plays he called, the way he put the game plan together made it pretty easy on us.”
At halftime, Coker was 10 for 13 passing for 134 yards with Alabama up 14-7. Wisconsin, also led by an efficient quarterback in Joel Stave, missed a field goal as time expired.
“I made the decision on Thursday, not that it matters, to play both guys [Coker and Bateman] in the game,” Saban said. “I told both guys that we’re not naming a starter; we’re naming who is starting a game. We don’t have a plan for three series for one guy, three for another. We’re just going to go on feel. Jake was playing pretty well, so we stuck with him.”
In the third quarter, Henry broke through for another long touchdown, going 56 yards to put the Tide up 21-7.
Alabama’s defense, meanwhile, prevented the Badgers from scoring, despite Stave going 14 for 16 for 149 yards in the first half.
Stave hit Alex Erickson for a 6-yard touchdown pass with 11:06 left in the second quarter. The Badgers’ next drive went 10 plays — with Stave completing 4 of 4 passes — but they were stopped on third and 7.
Alabama’s defense tightened even more in the second half, with Wisconsin punting on their first three possessions of the third quarter.
And the Tide offense kept rolling. On its third drive of the second half, Coker completed three of four passes, and Henry punched in a 2-yard touchdown run to extend the Tide’s lead to 28-7.
Henry finished with 147 yards rushing on 13 carries and three touchdowns.
Wisconsin reached the Alabama 20 late in the third quarter but settled on a field goal.
Bateman entered for the Tide at quarterback just before the fourth quarter and finished 7 of 8 passing for 51 yards.
Drake added a 43-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter for Alabama.
Ryan Osborne, 817-390-7760