Bart Houston under center for Wisconsin the last two weeks: 13 series, 37 Badgers points.
Alex Hornibrook under center: Nine series, 38 points.
With Houston under center: The Badgers went 10-for-21 on third down.
And with Hornibrook: 8-of-10.
Sorry, Paul Chryst. You’ve got a quarterback controversy on your hands, and just as the calendar turns to the fun stuff.
Or at the least, a quarterback discussion. Especially after Hornibrook, a redshirt freshman, pulled No. 9 Wisconsin’s lethargic backside out of the fire Saturday in a come-from-behind 23-17 victory over winless Georgia State.
The left-hander completed 8 of 12 throws for 122 yards with a pick and one very, very big touchdown with 8:07 left in the fourth quarter. He steered the hosts to five third-down conversions in seven tries, compared to Houston’s 3-for-9.
He did, more or less, everything that Houston couldn’t: Throw with touch, hit receivers in stride, force the defense back out of the box (where they’d practically set up camp), and — above all — move the chains.
“(I) was hoping just that,” Chryst, the Badgers’ head coach, told reporters after the game, “to get us a little something going.”
Oh, he did a bit more than that:
Poise in the pocket seems to be trait of Alex Hornibrook Has comparable demeanor to Brooks Bollinger. Nice touch & feel on downfield passes
— Mike Lucas (@LucasAtLarge) September 17, 2016
In short, the kid passed the eye test. Everyone’s eye tests.
Well, almost everyone’s. Chryst said after the game that he doesn’t plan on changing up the depth chart. Interesting.
In Chryst’s defense, Houston does have the Badgers’ biggest win, one of the signature wins in the program’s history, under his belt in a 16-14 season-opening victory in Green Bay over LSU. The senior hung in there against one of the best defenses in the country and was at the controls for the Badgers’ game-winning drive at Lambeau Field. He’s tested, and the Tigers, defensively, are as good of a litmus test as you’ll find outside Tuscaloosa.
That said, Houston also took Badgers points off the board with an early interception picked off in the end zone, and was later Pick-sixed for the Tigers’ first score of the afternoon. If there’s a consistent pattern with Houston over three games, it’s that you’ll get one or two throws per game that generally defy explanation.
With star tailback Corey Clement held out of the contest, Georgia State made it a point to dare Houston to show them something. He couldn’t. The Badgers’ first three drives got all the way to the Panthers 23, the Panthers 10 and the Panthers 1. They came away with six points — two field goals, one fumble at the goal line — to show for it.
Houston was low. Then he was high. Then a tad too wide. In the first half, the Badgers drove to the Georgia State 25 four different times, only to hit the locker room with a 6-0 lead. A contest that should’ve been over within the first 22 minutes — a 6-0 bulge that ought to have been 13-0 or 17-0 — was still well within the underdog’s grasp.
Which tells you something about what Clement, a healthy Clement, still means to this attack.
Unfortunately, it also says something about Houston at this point, too.
Especially when you consider that this was against a Georgia State defense that came in with a having given up 31 points and 325 rushing yards to Ball State and 48 points and 464 on the ground to Air Force. At the half, the Badgers had run for 120 on 25 carries (4.8 per tote) but were just 2-for-7 on third down.
With six minutes left in the third quarter, a 35.5-point favorite up only 6-3, Chryst shifted gears and called for Hornibrook.
On third-and-10 with 4:35 left in the period, the Badgers’ relief quarterback hit Jazz Peavy for a 26-yard gain. It was as if someone had just unplugged a dike.
Hornibrook marched Wisconsin 69 yards on six plays in 3:02, punctuated by a 2-yard run by Dare Ogubowale that put the hosts up 12-3. Hornibrook’s 48 passing yards over his first two attempts were nearly half what Houston had managed in his previous 18 throws combined (91 on 10 completions).
“I’m not a big, loud-mouth guy or anything,” Hornibrook said after the game. “I’m just trying to make plays.”
And while the redshirt freshman was picked with 12:47 left in the contest, that miscue wasn’t necessarily on his back. Hornibrook’s bullet went through the hands of open wideout George Rushing, who whiffed on a fastball that wound up getting cradled behind Rushing by Panthers defensive back Chandon Sullivan at the Georgia State 45.
After the Panthers went to the hurry-up and started punching enough holes in the Badgers secondary to take a 17-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, someone had to rally the offense. Hornibrook did.
On second-and-8 at the Wisconsin 43, the lefty found Robert Wheelright over the middle for an 11-yard gain. On first-and-10, Hornibrook hit an open Kyle Penniston up the right boundary for a 29-yard pickup to the Georgia State 17.
On third down at the Panthers 1, Hornibook faked the handoff and bootlegged right. Throwing against his body, he found a trailing Penniston for the touchdown to put the hosts back up front, capping an 8-play, 59-yard response.
“I thought he did show some poise,” Chryst said of Hornibrook.
Houston is a senior. Hornibrook isn’t. Chemistry counts for a lot in this particular discussion, but first downs — and points — count more.
Especially given the quality of the names who keep finding their way to the infirmary. Badgers tailback Taiwan Deal was lost to a first-half leg injury, as was tight end Troy Fumagalli. Clement twisted his left ankle late in the second half of last weekend’s laugher against Akron. The senior tested the bad wheel during warmups, but Chryst elected to take the discretionary route. Probably wise, given what’s to come.
Backups Ogunbowale (65 yards) and Bradrick Shaw (62) are capable, if imperfect, each providing one half of the juice Melvin Gordon used to bring to the table. The former is tough as nails with soft, secure hands, but lacks home-run explosiveness. Shaw could turn a 4-yard gain to a 40-yard touchdown with one cut, but also has face-palming moments such as the one early in the second quarter, getting the ball punched out just before crossing the goal line, a touchdown that would’ve put the Badgers up 12-0 early and allowed everybody a bit more breathing room.
Now Chryst has to prep for the six-week Bataan death march — at Michigan State, at Michigan, bye, vs. Ohio State, at Iowa, vs, Nebraska — with some hard questions to answer, and hard choices to make.
Including, most critically, the call under center. Chryst switched things up Saturday to try to find a spark. In the process, he just might have started a minor brush fire instead.