CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Paul Chryst wasn’t going to flinch.
With starting quarterback Joel Stave out with a head injury before the end of the first quarter, Wisconsin’s first-year head coach stuck with his game plan on offense. That was perfect for Bart Houston, who relished the opportunity to shine in the offense he originally committed to years ago.
Stepping in over the final three quarters, UW’s junior backup quarterback was the catalyst that led the Badgers to a 24-13 come-from-behind over Illinois at Memorial Stadium Saturday, the second time this season UW (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) has erased a second-half deficit in as many true road games.
Entering the game, Houston had never completed a pass in the first half, let alone been under center in a game where the outcome wasn’t clearly decided. If there were butterflies, the redshirt junior didn’t show any. In a little more than a three quarters of work, Houston finished with 232 yards on 22 of 33 passes and threw a pair of critical touchdown that overshadowed a couple of red-zone interceptions.
“It was just fun to play the game again,” said Houston.
Houston downplayed the significance of his performances. His teammates didn’t.
After Stave was officially done for the day, Houston drove UW down the field on three straight drives to end the half, helping the Badgers put 10 points on the board and go 3 of 4 for 43 yards and a touchdown on third down. That 23-yard score to Rob Wheelwright came on third-and-9.
“He’s put in his time,” said senior left tackle Tyler Marz. “For him to come out there and shine like he did and do some great things for us that was cool to see. I was happy for him.”
His only first-half mistake was forcing a throw on second-and-goal from the 3 that was intercepted with 33 seconds left in the half, a play that could have been avoided had Wheelwright not dropped a wide-open touchdown pass one play earlier.
“You move on, you forget about it and you play the rest of the game,” said Houston.
His ability to shake off the mistake came up big for Wisconsin in the second half. After Illinois (4-3, 1-2) retook the lead on a 36-yard touchdown run by Ke'Shawn Vaughn with 7:48 to go in the third quarter, Houston calmly guided the offense 86 yards down the field in eight plays and in 3 minutes, 43 seconds. Alec Ingold capped the drive with a two-yard rushing touchdown, his fourth in three games.
The ensuing drive was even sweeter and vintage Wisconsin. Chewing 7:39 off the clock on a 13-play drive, Houston went 3-for-3 on third down, hitting receiver Alex Erickson for 23 on third-and-12, for six on third-and-4 and for nine yards on third-and-goal for the touchdown, calming staying in the pocket, delivering the pass and absorbing the hit.
“He enjoyed getting the chance to go play,” said Chryst. “It didn’t seem too big for him. I thought he competed. I thought he stood in there. He made some throws and that was good. Certainly a couple he would like back. I thought he competed and he played and that’s fun to see.”
Chryst has long has an affinity for Houston. A prized signal caller out of Dublin, Calif., Houston was huge score for Wisconsin’s 2012 recruiting class – invited to compete in the Elite 11 quarterback competition and declining offers from Arizona, Iowa, UCLA, Washington and others.
But before Houston even arrived on campus, Chryst and his pro-style offense left for Pittsburgh and in came Gary Andersen’s spread-style attack. It was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
“That was turn one (in my career),” said Houston, smiling. “Everything happens for a reason … The hope was to come in here and be a four-year starter as a true freshman, but that doesn’t happen anywhere. It’s part of life.”
The Andersen era was a struggle for Houston. He struggled to compete in 2013 after coming off shoulder surgery and struggled with the offense in spring 2014. He had fallen so far out of the quarterback race that Andersen used Houston as the team’s rugby punter in five games last season, hitting punts as long as 52 and as short as 18.
The results had no impact on his improvement as a quarterback but gave him a dose of game experience in meaningful situations, something he wasn’t getting as the cleanup quarterback in a combined six games his first two seasons (2-for-4, 14 passing yards, one touchdown).
“It’s not what I wanted to play, but I was on the play having a role on the team within the whistles,” said Houston. “It felt good to have a little meaning during the game.”
While a lot has been made about Stave’s confidence since Chryst’s return, the same impact was felt with Houston. He left spring feeling the most comfortable he’s been since arriving on campus, a combination of Chryst’s return, being a year older and a year healthier.
“You can’t say I am a veteran quarterback but a veteran teammate,” said Houston, who never contemplated transferring. “I’ve been around everybody here a lot longer, so there’s confidence there with the receivers. It doesn’t matter what route they’re running. The offense is better suited for me. Coach Chyrst is an easier guy to talk to about offense.”
Knowing the starting quarterback role in 2015 was going to go to Stave, Houston has spent most of the offseason working on improving his craft with his eyes set on competing for the starting quarterback job in 2016.
After Saturday, he has to feel good about his chances.
“Today is what matters,” said Houston. “Learn from yesterday, today is what matters and tomorrow will take care of itself. That’s how I approach it.”