Bart Houston had every right to be nervous.
After taking the final snap of the team’s second drive, Houston was pressed into his first major action under center of his college career on Wisconsin’s third drive when Joel Stave wasn’t right. In the huddle, it felt just like any normal practice.
“He was cool, calm and collected,” said tailback Alec Ingold. “He was a cold-blooded killer out there. He played with a lot of poise, and I can’t thank him enough for being a leader out there.”
The usually relaxed Houston shined for the most part on Saturday, completing 22 of 33 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns. Benefitting from Wisconsin rolling protection and a quick release, Houston carved up Illinois’ secondary and looked like a well prepared quarterback.
“It’s always the next man in,” said Houston. “You have to be ready, if not more prepared, than the starter. I was ready.”
Houston’s best work came on third down. His touchdown pass on third-and-9 to Rob Wheelwright on his first drive was delivered with pinpoint accuracy. Staying strong in the pocket, Houston hit Wheelwright on a back shoulder throw, delivering it where only he could get it.
With his team leading 17-13, Houston drove Wisconsin 65 yards down the field, completing three third-down passes to Erickson, including a 9-yard touchdown that iced the game. Houston stood firm in the pocket despite outside pressure, delivered a bullet pass and made the right read and throw before absorbing the hit.
Houston helped Wisconsin go 9-for-15 on third down, its best mark of the season and a season high in completions.
There were some regrettable mistakes. Houston forced two passes into the end zone that were intercepted. One came when a mini fade route to a well-covered Wheelwright wasn’t thrown in the correct spot. The second came in the fourth quarter when Houston forced a throw into coverage.
Houston said the first one was the correct read and the second pick wasn’t. And like any true perfectionist, he said he’ll beat himself up more about the picks than the touchdowns.
“Those are definitely high school mistakes,” said Houston, “but I have not had that experience and I won’t do that again.”
Houston looked like a quarterback stuck in neutral in fall camp but his performance Saturday should get fans excited for his potential in 2016.
Stave went 3-for-7 for 49 yards before departing, getting very little protection from the line in front of him.
Corey Clement and Taiwan Deal were left at home so the burden of the running game went again to Dare Ogunbowale and Ingold. The running game was again a struggle for Ogunbowale (16 carries, 42 yards, long of 9) but he did make an impact in the passing game with 63 yards on five catches. His 35-yard catch over the middle and yards after the catch helped UW get its first score.
Ingold’s stat line is again unimpressive if looking just at the box score (13 carries for 26 yards) but his work in short-yardage situations and goal line drills adds a dimension to the offense that’s missing. His only mistake was fumbling the football in the first quarter that UW was able to recover but the coaching staff counted on him late on rushing attempts to help grind out the clock.
“It’s pretty cool just to be able to get out there with the guys and try and do as much as I can for the team,” said Ingold. “We’ve got a playbook for me when we get into the heavy set. It’s good to be able to have that trust in them to allow me to play as hard as I can and when I make a mistake for them to pick me up and support me.”
Alex Erickson’s impact on Wisconsin is usually felt every week in the receiving game. That was the case again with his career-high 10 catches for 96 yards and that touchdown, which was extremely well executed. With Troy Fumagalli split out, the tight end ran an out route. Erickson, who was between Fumagalli and another receiver, ran a post between two Illinois defenders. The slight delay by the defenders was enough for Houston to make the completion.
Where Erickson was the real impact player was the running game, also leading the Badgers with 81 yards on the ground on four attempts. His 56-yard jet sweep in the third quarter, right after Illinois took the lead, was a game changer.
Fumagalli was more than just a decoy, catching five passes for 52 yards, and continues to develop into a reliable target. Wheelwright’s 23-yard catch of Houston’s pass was tremendous, elevating to catch the ball and then diving for the goal line. To make that catch and then to miss a wide-open one in the second quarter is mindboggling. Wheelwright will have to wait awhile to redeem himself after suffering a left leg injury that could sideline him the rest of the season.
The first two drives made it appear like it was going to be a long day for the Wisconsin’s offense. On UW’s first drive, the line gave up a quarterback hurry when Beau Benzschawel missed an assignment, failed to block a run play on a 3-yard loss and a second quarterback hurry on third down.
On the next drive, left guard Michael Deiter was called for a 15-yard penalty for an illegal block (one of many that have been called on UW’s line this year), a sack on second down that led to Stave’s injury and a third down sack on Houston that came from Benzschawel – both registered by defensive tackle Chunky Phillips.
Over the last 10 drives, however, the line gave up only one sack when Deiter failed to get positioning. That was it.
“In the beginning I guess I was just too hyped up,” said Benzschawel. “Once I slowed down and started playing ball, I think I was pretty good from there.”
The line was helped with head coach Paul Chryst calling some rollouts for Houston and dabbling in play action. With Houston, who ran the veer in high school, getting out in space more, the line was given more wiggle room
“For the most part guys started settling into their roles and what they had to do,” said Benzschawel.
The running game still isn’t there for Wisconsin but the improved pass protection gave Houston time to make plays down the field. The rest test for this group will be how it will perform in the final five games without its veteran center, as Dan Voltz (right knee) is done for the season.
Other than the 36-yard hit in the running game, the Badgers can Illinois nothing on the ground. The Illini averaged 55 yards on their 13 carries, an average of 4.2 yards per carry. Take out that run, the number dropped to 1.58 yards per carry.
UW also accomplished that with true freshman Olive Sagapolu getting his second start in the middle in place of injured Arthur Goldberg (leg), who didn’t make the trip.
“I got some reps in at practice, so I knew if my number got called I’d do the best I could,” said Sagapolu. “Week by week we come in with the mentality to do big things for the team … A 3-4 scheme is definitely for the linebackers and for us to take up as many linemen as we can. So far it’s been very successful.”
The defense didn’t deliver a sack and only two tackles for loss (0.5 by Conor Sheehy led the group) but the overall numbers back up how solid the group was.
You have to remind yourself that T.J. Edwards is just a redshirt freshman, because he’s playing like a veteran instead of one eight games into his college career. Edwards led UW with 1.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups, including a leaping one that set up safety Michael Caputo for a fourth-quarter interception.
This group was a big reason why Illinois was held to a season-low 13 points.
Wisconsin gave up some hits in the passing game but most came when the wind was hollowing in its face during the second and fourth quarter. For the most part, UW controlled quarterback Wes Lunt and the Illini’s talented – yet banged-up – passing game. Lunt threw for 278 yards but had to attempt 43 passes to get there (28 completions) and didn’t finish with a touchdown pass.
“They had a couple big plays and we obviously need to get better at that, and we did,” said Caputo. “They hit us on it early and we cleaned it up.”
Darius Hillary put together another nice performance with five solo tackles and has 27 total tackles (18 solo) for the season.
The only touchdown Wisconsin gave up was the result of the perfect offensive play call (an inside cutback run by Ke’shawn Vaughn when Hillary was sprinted in on a blitz) and a missed tackle by Tanner McEvoy in the secondary. McEvoy also delivered a poor late hit penalty with UW up two possessions in the fourth quarter. Illinois eventually turned it over on downs but it was not the smartest of penalties.
Sojourn Shelton finished with five tackles (four solo) and a pass breakup but made a couple critical errors. He couldn’t control an interception thrown right to him in the end zone (confirmed by video replay) that led to Illinois kicking a 37-yard field goal.
He also was beat off the line that led to a 37-yard completion and another field goal for Illinois in the second quarter.
Senior punter Drew Meyer was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week after he averaged a season-best 46.8 yards per punt and placed three of his five punts inside the 20-yard line. In the second half, Illinois’ average starting field position after Meyer’s three punts was its own 10.4 yard line. Meyer also recorded three 50-yard punts for the second time this season, and the third time in his career.
Rafael Gaglianone made his only field goal attempt (26 yards) – only the second game this year he hasn’t missed a kick. Senior kicker Jack Russell also did a nice job on kickoffs in place of Andrew Endicott, putting the ball in the right spot on a windy day and averaging 59.4 yards.
The return coverage was good for Wisconsin – not allowing a kickoff return longer than 22 yards on four returns and not allowing a punt return longer than 16 on four returns – but UW’s own return game continues to be nonexistent. Natrell Jamerson’s inexperience shows on returns. On multiple returns he runs sideline to sideline instead of getting up the field, losing yards in the process.