Rebuilding an offensive line with three new starters while trying to take on a front seven of the Tide nationally praised as the best in the nation, Wisconsin would be strained to run the ball efficiently at the absolute least -- forcing redshirt senior Joel Stave to step up with the passing game. That was expected.
But what happens following the loss of the team captain and starting safety, and then the best offensive player?
With redshirt senior Michael Caputo knocked out in the first series of the game with a head injury, a defense that was leaned upon heavily to slow a talented but unproven Alabama offense struggled to make tackles and contain junior running back Derrick Henry and senior quarterback Jake Coker as the Badgers lost 35-17 in front of 64,279 fans at AT&T Stadium.
Henry ran for 148 yards on 13 carries and three touchdowns, while Coker -- emerging from a five-way contest for the starting job -- threw for 213 yards on 15-of-21 passing and a touchdown. The Tide gained 502 yards on the evening, nearly double Wisconsin's yardage, and at times moved the ball with ease due to some miscommunication with Caputo out. That held especially true during the third quarter, when the Tide outgained the Badgers 186 yards to 29 and outscored them 14-3.
"They started motioning the running back a lot more, and that put a little bit of stress on some of the communication -- but I didn't see anything they did drastically different that changed it," senior outside linebacker Joe Schobert said regarding Alabama's adjustments in the second half.
"It comes out to communication -- just playing gap-sound, fundamental football -- and we need to improve on that."
The running game was stifled by Alabama's front seven, which wasn't unexpected, but the loss of junior running back Clement further dampened any chance of a productive rushing attack. Last season, the Badgers averaged over 320.1 yards per contest. Saturday night, Wisconsin could only muster 40 on 21 carries, a 1.9 yards-per-carry average behind a patchwork offensive line still looking to gel after a rash of injuries during fall camp.
Clement left the game due to a left groin injury and admitted afterward there was a tweak that occurred Tuesday. After the adrenaline of the game wore off, his legs felt "awkward" and the decision was made to limit the Badgers' starting running back. On the evening, he gained only 16 yards on eight carries.
Junior Dare Ogunbowale and redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal replaced Clement but didn't fare much better, combining for 23 yards on nine carries.
Stave and the forward pass was the only way the Badgers could muster offense against A'Shawn Robinson and the Tide defense, throwing for two touchdown passes with one interception. Wisconsin gained only 268 yards Saturday, 228 through the air.
"I think they 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."
"They didn't do anything that we didn't prepare for," junior center Dan Voltz added. "They're really good players. They got a good scheme, and they did exactly what we prepared for, like I said, and we just have to play better. Simple as that."
Alabama took a 14-7 lead into halftime after sophomore kicker Rafael Gaglianone missed a 34-yard field goal at the end of the half.
The series immediately after Caputo left -- his injury was so severe, he walked into the Tide huddle thinking it was the Badgers' -- Coker drove Alabama to the endzone in six plays and 90 yards with Henry breaking the tackle of sophomore nose guard Conor Sheehy for a 37-yard touchdown on a 4th-and-1 attempt. Henry ran for 76 yards on nine carries in the first half.
The Badgers answered in the second quarter with a long drive of their own. With Stave passing on seven of the nine plays on the drive, Wisconsin's offense drove 63 yards in 4:29, ending with a 6-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Alex Erickson. Stave completed six of seven passes that drive for 59 yards, giving Wisconsin life and a hint of momentum in the second quarter.
Coker led the Tide back the drive immediately thereafter, however. Junior inside linebacker Leon Jacobs left the game briefly in that series for a short time, and Alabama's offense completed passes of 33, 13, 11 and 17 yards -- the latter to Robert Foster on a well-developed crossing pattern for a touchdown. Coker was 10-of-13 in the first half for 134 yards with that one touchdown pass.
All momentum shifted to Alabama in the third quarter, as two Henry touchdowns -- a 56-yard scamper and a 2-yard score -- helped a string of 21 unanswered points by the Tide extend the lead to 28-7. A missed tackle by redshirt junior Leo Musso sprung Henry for his second long touchdown of the evening, while a seven-play, 67-yard drive drained the defense. Another round of bad tackling led to a 43-yard touchdown run by Kenyan Drake in the fourth quarter.
"There's some things we can do with that and control it," Chryst said regarding the missed tackles by the Badgers, "and I also think they had some pretty good players running through those tackles."
Though Stave connected with junior wide receiver Robert Wheelwright on a 3-yard touchdown to make it an 18-point advantage for the Tide, the game had been decided. Now the Badgers, after experiencing their second consecutive season-opening loss in a neutral site game to a team primed to be a contender in the College Football Playoff, will start to regroup as they prepare for Miami (Ohio) next Saturday.
"But it's -- what a great experience for a lot of our guys," Chryst said. "And you're appreciative to be able to play in games like this. And like I said, we wanted to play better. We didn't.
"I think there's some areas we can build on. We need to, and look forward to getting back with this group starting to get ready for next week."