The Wisconsin Badgers fell to the Alabama Crimson Tide 35-17 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. Saturday night. A tough game to start the season with an offensive line integrating three new starters into the offense and facing one of the best defenses in the nation, the Badgers struggled at times and were overwhelmed in the end -- but there were bright spots in the contest that one could say was a great litmus test for this 2015 team.
Our writers break down what they saw, and what to look forward to next weekend versus MAC opponent Miami (Ohio).
THE GOOD: What went well for Wisconsin?
Curt Hogg: Redshirt senior quarterback Joel Stave went well for Wisconsin. I think that was pretty clear, and Neal will go into that some more. Senior outside linebacker Joe Schobert made some strong, aggressive plays against both the run and the pass when there really weren't many good plays made in those regards.
Neal Olson: Stave was clearly the winner tonight. He was accurate and decisive. Certainly a great deal of credit goes to Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst and the play calling. Bama dared Wisconsin to throw, and Stave did enough to think the passing game will be well above the versions we have seen the past three seasons. Especially with no defense on par with Alabama looming on the schedule the rest of the way, no reason to think the offense will be one dimensional this season.
I have to mention junior cornerback Sojourn Shelton here as well. Last year's struggles were difficult to see after his outstanding first season. But he looked more like his freshman self against Bama. He was aggressive in tackling and made several nice pass break-ups on deep balls.
Kevin O'Connell: I agree that Stave clearly looks like a much improved quarterback from last season. He made a couple of impressive throws against probably the best defense the Badgers will face all season and just looked a lot more comfortable in the pocket than a year ago. It was also a good night for Schobert and redshirt junior outside linebacker Vince Biegel, as both applied substantial pressure on Alabama senior quarterback Jacob Coker and made plays in the backfield. It was also nice to see redshirt junior running back Dare Ogunbowale make some catches out of the backfield. He seems to have emerged as another weapon that Chryst can use and looks poised to have a big year as Clement's backup.
Jon Arens: Leading up to the game, the narrative nationally seemed to be that Wisconsin would struggle because of their unproven quarterback play the last few seasons. The traditional strengths of Wisconsin, having an NFL-caliber offensive line and a stable of running backs, would be what kept the Badgers in a game versus a high caliber opponent like Alabama. So, of course, Stave was the sharpest player on the field, the offensive line showed their inexperience, and redshirt senior wide receiver Alex Erikson led the team in rushing with a single run of 25 yards. Stave made smart decisions and played with a confidence that will give the team an edge the rest of the fall. Given the state of the passing game the last three seasons, Badger fans have to be thrilled to see the quarterback play as a plus and not a minus against a team like Alabama.
THE BAD: How did the Tide exploit the Badgers?
Curt: In the trenches, on both sides of the ball. Alabama's front seven took away any chance of running the ball for Wisconsin. To only see 21 rushing attempts for a UW offense is beyond a rarity, but they forced Chryst and the Badgers to air it out.
On defense, it was quite clear that Alabama had their way running the ball. Junior running back Derrick Henry ran rampant through holes created against the front seven, and the Badgers safeties sans redshirt senior safety Michael Caputo really struggled to step up. The Tide spread out the Badgers, used misdirection and stuck with the run.
Neal: Offensive line was abused tonight. That does not happen often to Wisconsin. It might be a bit premature to hit the panic button -- but if the line does not jell in the next three non-conference games, it might be a very long and frustrating year.
It also bears mentioning the injuries to Caputo and junior running back Corey Clement. I can see Clement's as more of a precaution considering the lopsided score of the game and lack of running room. No need to have him take unnecessary hits if he's already banged up. But Caputo's head injury certainly has more potential for lingering affects. He is also one of a handful of defensive players the Badgers cannot afford to lose.
Kevin: I gotta agree with Neal and Curt here, the Badgers were just overpowered on the line on both sides of the ball. The strength of Alabama's front seven (arguably the best in the country) dominated Wisconsin's inexperienced offensive line but I don't think its time to entirely write them off just yet. They'll get a chance to gel against some easier opponents the next three weeks, but they must learn and improve fast if the Badgers want any shot at winning the Big Ten West division. The defensive line is more of a concern, as Wisconsin's new look front seven was manhandled all night by Bama's o-line. The Badgers look as if they will be solid against the pass this season, but stopping the run consistently could prove to be a weak spot for the Badgers.
Jon: The youth and inexperience on both lines showed against a team that recruits large humans better than anyone in the country. The offensive line play will improve, but it was a tough first outing for a group that really has not had much time to settle into their roles yet. I give the offensive coaches a lot of credit for getting the most they could given the injuries they sustain the last few weeks.
Losing Caputo for multiple games is a much more pressing issue. Much more will be written on that situation, but give credit to the staff for taking away his helmet when they did. His absence was immediately exploited and the Badger defense needs to prepare for a fall without their leader at full speed.
TEAM MVP: Who shined Saturday night versus Alabama?
Curt: Stave, just like everyone predicted! Right?! RIGHT?! He made some really impressive throws into tight windows and showed great anticipation against a stout defense while dealing with no rushing attack to help out.
Neal: Have to go with Stave again. After all he has endured, coming out with that respectable performance against that defense with no running game is pretty spectacular. Plus it's hard to pick a defender after allowing 502 yards...
Kevin: It has to be Stave, who was about the only bright spot on offense for the Badgers. With no running game, Stave kept Wisconsin within striking distance in the first half and made some impressive throws against an elite defense. Honorable mention goes to Erickson who looks like he will have another huge year as Stave's favorite target.
Jon: Stave, obvi. He played like a leader and has clearly benefitted greatly from Chryst's presence on the sideline. If Stave can play to this level the rest of the year, the Badgers are going to blow some teams out.
UP NEXT, MIAMI (OHIO): It's non-conference, but what do you want to see out of the Badgers against their MAC opponent?
Curt: Among other things, I'd like to see the Badgers get redshirt senior wide receiverTanner McEvoy more involved. Chryst noted he was a bit hampered against Alabama and, thus, only saw limited action on offense and none on defense. Stave looked strong, but the passing game consisted largely of underneath routes to running backs and tight ends. McEvoy could help add another dimension.
Neal: With any luck this will be the "official Corey Clement" breakout game. The offensive line will have an easier time and Clement should see more than eight carries as long as he's healthy.
Also equally as important, cutting down the missed tackles on defense would be encouraging. Tackling is one of those things that tends to snowball. Poor tackling in one games frequently leads to more poor tackling the following game without the proper focus in practice. With a few inexperienced players, I expect the coaches will emphasize tackling heavily in the coming weeks.
Kevin: It's important for Wisconsin to get back to their bread and butter. This game is a chance for the offensive line to improve as a unit and hopefully allow Clement to have his first monster game of the season. It's also a big game for the middle linebackers who allowed some big plays down the middle of the field on Saturday. Both inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Leon Jacobs need to improve on their pass coverage, and an opponent like Miami (Ohio) will give them a chance to do just that.
Jon: Getting healthy and getting into a rhythm against a much less formidable opponent will be incredibly important. There will be a tempation to play down to the level of Miami, but the Badgers need to sustain methodical drives and give their offensive line a chance to get game reps. Wisconsin will not have many chances this fall to prove they deserve to be ranked in the top 25, so they will need to play like a program that was chosen to open the season against Alabama in prime time. Echoing Curt, getting McEvoy involved early will give the Badgers a rare second receiving option for Stave going forward.