Spring Game Notes - Offense

News and notes from Wisconsin's offense following the annual spring game.

MADISON - The spring has felt like an out-of-body experience for Wisconsin fifth-year senior quarterback Joel Stave.

He’s had no injuries he’s battling back from; he’s not battling tooth and nail in a quarterback competition and he feels supremely confident with the support system that has been placed around him.

The results have shown through 14 previous practices and again Saturday, albeit briefly, during the team’s annual spring game.

Running only the first series with the starting offense against the reserve defense, Stave went 2-for-2 for 55 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown pass to Rob Wheelwright that was perfectly thrown and placed over converted cornerback Natrell Jamerson.

“When he’s healthy (Rob) cane be a very good player for us,” said Stave, as the starting offense/second-team defense (aka Team Josh Gasser) beat the second-team offense/starting defense (aka Team Duje Dukan), 35-7, in front of 9,630 fans for the annual spring game at Camp Randall Stadium. “I think he showed that today and near the end of spring when he was consistently out there. He’s a big, athletic player who is able to make plays.”

The lack of a heavy quarterback battle this spring has afforded Stave the time during practice to work on his game, compared to what has been his norm in past years of always making safe, smart decisions to try to win a starting job.

He’s spent the spring testing his ability to throw into tighter windows, fine tune his drop backs and test his limitations as a quarterback.

“I don’t need to be perfect every day,” said Stave. “I want to try stuff out and see what works.”

Junior quarterback Bart Houston is in the same boat with his confidence. Saying easily these past 15 practices represent the best camp he’s had since arriving in fall 2012, Houston has been reinvigorated by the return of Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst’s pro-style offense, another year of experience and having no health setbacks.

Running six series with the starters after Stave departed, Houston went 9-for-16 for 103 yards and a 20-yard touchdown to Wheelwright. The play was highlighted by Houston staying in the long enough to deliver the pass on the out route, knowing full well he was going to get hit.

“I can’t say I am a veteran quarterback, but I am a veteran teammate,” said Houston, who says he’s not thinking about the starting QB job. “I’ve been around everyone a lot longer, so there’s confidence there and confidence with the receivers. It doesn’t matter what route they are running, I still have the confidence with them. The offense is better suited for me. Coach Chryst is an easier guy to talk to about football, life and everything.”

Redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins ran four series with the second team and two with the starters, finishing 5-for-10 passing for 50 yards and had a 35-yard scramble. True freshman Alex Hornibrook (5-for-13, 58 yards) got most of the work with four first-team series and five second-team series. True freshman Austin Kafentzis (3-for-3, 53 yards) worked the final three series with the backups, throwing a 34-yard touchdown to receiver George Rushing.

“All I was trying to do was try to work my way up the depth chart a little bit and get some reps,” said Hornibrook of his spring. “I got some reps and I was happy with that, but definitely keep going with that and do the exact same thing.”

Baring an injury, a major surge from one of the reserves or a collapse of his own, Stave will be the starter when Wisconsin takes on Alabama in Arlington, Texas, September 5, marking his 29th start over four different seasons.

And if UW takes advantage of its light schedule and win at least 10 games with Stave under center, the former walk-on quarterback will pass Brooks Bollinger for career wins (30).

“That’s a number that I’d like to reach,” said Stave. “I think that’s something that’s very obtainable with the guys we’ve got and the team we have in place.”

Wheeling and Dealing

Wheelwright’s two touchdown catches doubled his total from all of the 2014 season, but followed the theme of his spring that he’s been able to be productive when healthy enough to practice. The 6-2, 201-pound junior led the team in catches (7) and yards (79).

“Hopefully Rob can take this and gain some confidence from it,” said Chryst. “Perfect example of a guy who wants to, but needs to have a great summer.”

Wheelwright said the receivers are a group that still have a lot of work to do, but the Badgers’ passing game showed some life with 10 players combining for 24 catches for 319 yards and three touchdowns.

“All the receivers are starting to love it,” said Wheelwright. “We’ve had some injuries that have held us back, but everybody is eager for fall. We love with Coach Chryst is doing. Everybody is starting to building confidence with the quarterbacks and coaches. It’s just real great.”

Ogunbowale Sparks in Second Half

After the running game developed little traction in the first half with the backups following the departure of Corey Clement, redshirt junior Dare Ogunbowale staked his claim to start fall camp as the No.2 tailback.

Ogunbowale finished with 89 yards on 11 carries and a pair of scores, a 55-yard touchdown run that was the longest play of the day after he found a cutback lane and a 20-yard run that he executed by hitting another gear after getting past the right tackle.

“The first half was a little rough; I just made sure I kept pressing things,” said Ogunbowale. “I didn’t want to shy away from who I was. The o-line helped me out, too … Whenever we go live, it definitely gives me a lot more confidence going into the summer that I was able to break some tackles.”

The Badgers also saw redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal put in some good work, finishing with 76 yards and 15 carries.

“I thought Taiwan, to me, had a couple runs where he showed really good patience and his vision,” said Chryst. “As he gets more comfortable with the offense, and maybe himself too, that’ll help. Overall I think he had a really good spring from where he started to where he finished.”

With four-star tailback Jorden Stevenson and three-star tailback Bradrick Shaw both joining the program in the summer (and both on campus for the spring game), Chryst believes the Badgers are starting to add some capable bodies in the backfield.

“I think we might have started to develop some depth there,” said Chryst.

Extra Points: Chryst said the offensive line depth is concerning, especially considering senior Ray Ball and junior Dan Voltz didn’t practice. The first-team offensive line consisted of Tyler Marz, Beau Benzschawel, Michael Deiter, Walker Williams and Hayden Biegel and the second team was Jacob Maxwell, Logan Schmidt, George Panos, Jon Dietzen and Brett ConnorsReggie Love missed his second straight practice to end spring … Receiver Connor Senger suffered a compound fracture to his left pinkie finger in the first half, the most serious injury of the game.

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