ARLINGTON, Texas -- Two years after he pushed Jameis Winston to the limit at Florida State, one year after he transferred in to lead Alabama to the Promised Land, fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Coker made the first start of his collegiate career Saturday night.
And he did just fine. In the No. 3 Crimson Tide's season-opening 35-17 victory over No. 20 Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium that wasn't as close as the final margin indicates, that's all Coker had to do.
The Badger defense had no answer for Tide junior Derrick Henry. The Badgers' offense had no answer for an Alabama defensive front that made the running lanes look like the west side of Milwaukee at afternoon rush hour. Coker did what he needed to do, completing 15 of 21 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown, and his teammates did what they needed to do for him.
"I always had belief, but it's kind of surreal that it actually happened," said Coker, who last started a game at St. Paul's Episcopal High in Mobile in 2010. "To play quarterback for Alabama is something that's always been a dream of mine."
It took nine months for the Alabama quarterback competition to produce a starting quarterback. He's 232 pounds and 77 inches, and the papa sounded proud.
"I thought he did a nice job," head coach Nick Saban said. "I thought he was accurate with the ball. He didn't make any poor decisions. He didn't put the ball into coverage anywhere. Did a nice job of executing what we wanted him to do."
The five-man competition dwindled this week to Coker and junior Cooper Bateman. Saban said he made his decision Thursday.
"I told both guys, 'We're not naming a starter. We're naming who is going to start in the game,'" Saban said, which, trust me, made more sense when Saban said it than it does here on the screen. "We don't have a plan for three series for one guy, three series for another. We're just going to go on feel, and Jake was playing pretty well, so we stayed with it."
It sounds as if Coker walked onto the field at JerryWorld on the world's shortest leash. But Coker gave Saban no reason to pull him. The Tide committed no turnovers.
Coker said he found out Friday, and told only his parents. "It's pretty unbelievable," Coker said. "There's nothing like being back out there when the game starts and the ball is in your hands."
There's nothing like being out there and being able to hand the ball to a guy like Henry. He is a tailback in a middle linebacker body (6-foot-3, 242), kind of like if Porsche produced a beer truck. And as long as he can do what he did Saturday night -- 147 yards and three touchdowns on only 13 carries -- then all Coker has to do is not beat Alabama.
Take the first of Henry's touchdowns, a 37-yard dash straight up the gut after Henry shook off an arm tackle by Badgers nose guard Conor Sheehy. The sophomore is 6-4, 272 pounds, so he has two pretty strong arms. But Henry ran through his grasp like Sheehy was a scout team safety.
Beer trucks bring to mind the traditional Wisconsin running game -- big bodies on the offensive line moving inexorably forward. On Saturday night, those big bodies came out of their stances and found themselves standing as erect as Marines in boot camp. They made no headway into the Alabama defensive line.
In fact, Wisconsin -- home of Doak Walker Award winners Melvin Gordon and Montee Ball, and home of seven All-American offensive linemen in the past five seasons -- was reduced to abandoning its ground game after the first possession of the second half. On the next three possessions, the Badgers threw on 14 of 15 downs.
Wisconsin, other than a 25-yard run in the fourth quarter by wide receiver Alex Erickson, rushed for 15 yards on 20 attempts with a long gain of five yards. No, it didn't help that junior Corey Clement tweaked a groin muscle in practice and never looked like the tailback who had rushed for 1,496 yards in a backup role over the past two years. But neither he nor Gordon nor Ball nor 1954 Heisman winner Alan Ameche was going to dent the Crimson Tide front Saturday night.
Given that Alabama made the Wisconsin offense one-dimensional, Badgers quarterback Joel Stave played well. He completed 26 of 39 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns.
"The game is all about balance," Stave said. "You want to be able to run the ball. You want to be able to throw the ball."
Saban praised Coker's performance for the balance it provided for the Crimson Tide. But the head coach refused to opine about whether Coker would be the starter or just start next Saturday against Middle Tennessee State.
"We don't have a plan yet," Saban said. "We just won a big game against a good team, all right?"
Hey, Coker waited five seasons to hear he would make his first start. He can wait five days to hear about the second one.