Perhaps Wisconsin’s quarterback situation is more settled behind the doors of its locker room. From the outside, it looks a lot like a controversy.
After the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel used unnamed sources to report that Alex Hornibrook had supplanted Bart Houston as the starter earlier Monday, Badgers coach Paul Chryst would not reveal a starter for the Big Ten opener on Saturday at No. 8 Michigan State (11 a.m. CT, BTN).
“I’ve been consistent with what I’ve told them all along and what I’ve been telling everyone. This week, we’ve got to prepare and they both have to do a great job of preparation,” Chryst told reporters during his Monday press conference.
“I said this when we named Bart the starter, that he earned the right to start and Alex earned the right to play. I told both kids that; that I wanted to play them both and that we would need them both. For us to be as good as we can, I still believe that.”
The coach offered that statement before being asked about the topic on Monday, which lets us know this issue is engulfing the program. The first question from a reporter requested clarification on whether Houston still was his starter.
“Both have to be ready to play, to be sure, and I’m positive of that,” Chryst said. “I told them, there are going to be games where they’re both going to play. You do it in hockey. You have two goalies. You can have the best pitcher in baseball and he doesn’t always finish the game. So we need both of them to keep growing and go for us. I’ll let the week determine all this stuff, with who’s going to play tailback, who’s going to play left guard, who’s going to play quarterback.”
In fairness to Chryst, he gains no competitive advantage by naming a starter on Monday. He can let Michigan State prepare for both signal callers.
It’s not often that a 3-0 team with a No. 11 national ranking finds itself with an unsettled quarterback position. A dive into statistics reveals that the Badgers’ offense has been inconsistent at best.
Wisconsin opened the season with a 16-14 victory against a tough LSU defense. It followed with a 54-10 blowout of lowly Akron. Last week, Georgia State led the Badgers 17-13 during the fourth quarter in Madison before the home team rallied behind Hornibrook for a 23-17 win.
A week earlier, Air Force put up 48 points on Georgia State after Ball State hit the Panthers for 31.
Houston, a fifth-year senior, was 10 of 18 for 91 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions against GSU until being replaced by Hornibrook late in the third quarter. At the time, the Badgers clung to a 6-3 lead against a Georgia State team that was allowing 39.5 points though the first two weeks.
Hornibrook completed 8 of 12 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown against one pick in less than a quarter and a half of play. His interception was a ball that should have been caught by his receiver.
The redshirt freshman was able to stretch the field. He completed a 29-yard pass to Jazz Peavy and a 19-yarder to George Rushing shortly after entering the game.
The Badgers traveled 69 yards on six plays over 2:39 during Hornibrook’s first drive. Dare Ogunbowale capped it with a two-yard touchdown run.
After the Panthers responded with a pair of touchdowns to take a 17-13 lead with 11:36 remaining in regulation, Hornibrook led his team on a 8-play, 59-yard march in 4:03. The lefty capped the surge with a one-yard touchdown toss to Kyle Penniston. Wisconsin did not trail again.
“We needed a spark. So often it’s put on the quarterback,” Chryst told reporters Monday. “The quarterback is responsible for a lot just like everyone is. But I thought it was a good change-up for us. So, we’re going to need them both and I’m looking forward to those guys working this week.”
Hornibrook told reporters that he won’t change his approach going into the week no matter if he’s starting or relieving.
“It’s kind of the same as the rest of the season,” he said. “If they tell me to go in, then I’m ready. But if they don’t, then I’m ready for that, too. I’m not really expecting anything just doing the same thing as I did before.”
Through three games, Houston has completed 44 of 71 passes for 527 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. Hornibrook is 13 of 17 for 183 yards and two scored with a pick.
Saturday, the Badgers’ offense converted 6 of 8 third downs with Hornibrook behind center. The unit was 0 of 10 under Houston.
“It’s tough. One of our goals was being better on third down and being better at finishing drives. It doesn’t feel good to not score points,” Houston told reporters.
Hornibrook didn’t view his win in relief as something he did for himself. He had a mission in mind when he took the field.
“I just kind of wanted to get us out of that jam we were in to win the game for all the guys. It’s not what we expected but everybody battled hard,” he said.
Now, Houston and Hornibrook head to practice this week hoping to impress Chryst enough to settle a situation that can unravel a team.
Chryst knows what’s at stake:
“There are areas at the quarterback position where we can get better. We need to keep working to get better. There are some good things that both Bart and Alex have done that they’ve got to continue to do well and build on that. And this week, we’ll give a ton of work to them both. They can work through the whole game plan.”