GREEN BAY, Wis. — They don’t need a hero.
They don’t need a savior.
They don’t need Russell Wilson.
They need Alex Smith.
Bart Houston doesn’t need to be the be-all for Wisconsin to get where it wants to go this fall.
He just can’t be the end-all.
In his first start as the Badgers’ undisputed signal-caller, the senior from California was responsible for one LSU touchdown Saturday with one pick and took a Wisconsin score off the board with another. And yet the Badgers won anyway, toppling the fifth-ranked Tigers 16-14 at the first college game played at Lambeau Field since 1983.
That’s how good this roster is. Still.
That’s how good this defense is. Still.
The nation’s No. 1 scoring defense picked up right where it left off in the 2015 Holiday Bowl, harassing LSU quarterback Brandon Harris all afternoon and limiting the Tigers to 257 yards on the day — 138 of them coming on the ground by tailback Leonard Fournette.
And yet, for much of the afternoon, Fournette was remarkable for being, well, unremarkable. In a contest expected to be a slugfest — featuring the Badgers’ 2015 defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda, running the defense at LSU, and Justin Wilcox now doing the same in Madison — the teams combined for 16 first downs in the first half.
After two quarters, LSU had 64 total yards on 21 plays, has turned the ball over twice and was 0-for-5 on third or fourth down. Fournette had just 35 yards on 11 carries.
The Badgers posted a 6-0 lead on two Rafael Gaglianone field goals — including a 48-yarder right down main street — but it could’ve been 13-0. Or at least 9-0, if Houston wasn’t picked off in the end zone throwing into triple coverage.
Houston’s up-then-down-then-up-again day was compounded with another brain fart with 5:28 to go in the third quarter and the Badgers nursing a 13-0 advantage. The senior stared down his target up the left boundary, kept his eyes there, and fired a rainbow that was picked off by LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White, who crossed the field and ran it back for a 21-yard pick-6.
Houston shook it off, finishing with 205 passing yards on 19-of-31 passing. He moved the chains with his feet when he had to and bailed when he had to, for the most part. He found an immediate rapport with big tight end Troy Fumagalli (seven catches, 100 yards receiving) and hit his favorite target for gains of 20 and 11 yards to key the 48-yard drive that set up the game-deciding field goal.
Running backs Corey Clement (86 yards rushing) and Dare Ogunbowale (44 yards) are there to do the heavy lifting, and Wilcox’s defense — just as it was under Aranda — looks more than ready to take care of the rest.
“It’s good experience, always,” Houston cracked after the game. Then he grinned. “Hopefully it never happens again.”
If Saturday reminded us of anything, it’s that the more things change in Madison, the more they stay the same. That and the fact that the Badgers don’t necessarily need Houston to be good. They just need him to be good enough.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler