MADISON – One week before Wisconsin’s Big Ten opener, the Badgers have injury questions, depth issues and a quarterback controversy. Not exactly what the program was bargaining for when it paid its opponent $1.2 million to supposedly be a sacrificial lamb.
Then again, it’s hard to put a price tag on surviving a little adversity with some resiliency.
Wanting to deliver a clean game before the start of conference play next week, No.9 Wisconsin found a way to survive with a 23-17 victory over Georgia State at Camp Randall Stadium
“A little adversity sets us up for what we might see ahead,” cornerback Sojourn Shelton. “We could come out next week and play really well, or next week we could hit some adversity and be in situations where we need to respond. Today built us for that moment.”
The Badgers (3-0) enters their conference opener next weekend at No.12 Michigan State undefeated for the first time since 2011, fortunate considering the sun-splashed crowd of 79,883 was uncertain of the outcome until the final few minutes.
Wisconsin’s offense already didn’t have Corey Clement (ruled out pregame with an ankle injury) and saw backup tailback Taiwan Deal and tight end Troy Fumagalli exit in the first quarter with leg injuries. Combine those problems with senior quarterback Bart Houston struggling, head coach Paul Chryst said the offense was “a little off on some things.”
The defense could relate. Georgia State’s offense ranked 104th or worse in every offensive category entering the game and managed only 86 first-half yards, but the Panthers delivered four pass plays over 20 yards in the second half and scores on three straight scoring drives to take a 17-13 lead with 11:36 remaining.
“There were a couple times where a gap broke down,” outside linebacker Vince Biegel said. “That’s very unlike us. We’re very disciplined, not a lot of mistakes and that wasn’t shown at times.”
It’s not unheard of for Wisconsin to play an ugly nonconference home game. In five of the last seven seasons, the Badgers failed to cover the point spread against a non-power five conference opponent. Only difference was UW didn’t have to come from behind to win those games.
Gut check time.
“They came out and hit us in the face,” inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said.
Despite the situation, redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook was confident after leading the offense to its first touchdown drive on his first series (he replaced Houston – 10-for-18 for 91 yards – at the 5:54 mark of the third quarter) and had no nerves after the Panthers took the lead just three plays after a botched catch turned into an interception.
“Getting that one (touchdown) drive was big for our fans, the players on the sideline,” Hornibrook said, “that really got the momentum back on our side.”
It showed. Hitting receiver Rob Wheelwright and tight end Kyle Penniston on consecutive completions to get the ball to the GSU 17, Chryst dialed up a play-action pass on third-and-goal from 1, leading to Penniston being wide open in the end zone after the Panthers crashed the middle.
In his first two collegiate games, Hornibrook is 13-for-17 for 183 yards, two touchdowns and five touchdown drives.
“He is so calm, under control, never high and never low,” center Michael Deiter said of Hornibrook. “He’s always consistent in his emotions and it shows up in his play.”
That gave the defense the jolt it needed. Georgia State (0-3) went three-and-out on its next two drives and Wisconsin’s running game ran off the final 3:12.
“We started slow but at the end of the day we bowed up and made two key stops in the fourth quarter, which was critical for our defense,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “We’ve just got to start faster, come out with more energy, but at the end of the day we got the job done.”
The inability to convert early was one of the prime reasons the Badgers found themselves in the perilous position. All five of UW’s first half drives advanced inside Panthers territory but resulted in only six points.
Worst yet, the Badgers went 1-for-3 in the red zone, seeing tailback Bradrick Shaw fumble inside his own 5-yard line and Rafael Gaglianone – after making kicks of 41 and 28 – missed a 30-yard attempt wide left from the right hash as the half expired.
“At the end, it gave us the chance to win the game,” Georgia State coach Trent Miles said of the Panthers defensive stands. “Instead of the touchdowns and trying to fight back from two scores down, we always kept it within one score. So it was huge for us from a confidence standpoint to be able to do that.”
Without Clement, Wisconsin’s running game looked eerily similar to what it was a year ago. Throw in Deal’s leg injury, Dare Ogunbowale and Shaw combined for just rushing 127 yards. In games Clement didn’t play a year ago, Wisconsin eclipsed 200 team rushing yards only twice in nine games. UW finished with 187 rushing yards Saturday.
“We moved the ball very well and we want to get more than field goals,” Ogunbowale said. “… Once we get down there, we just have to put the ball in the end zone.”
The Badgers will be in wait-and-see mode over the next six days to get a diagnosis on the availability of Clement, Deal and Fumagalli for the conference opener. UW will also have to figure out its quarterback situation, something Chryst slightly defused after the game by saying Houston is the starter “right now.”
But for a team that has two fourth-quarter comebacks this season, at least its resiliency isn’t being called into question.
“We’ve seen some crazy stuff over these two weeks that makes us grow even more,” Deiter said. “I’m definitely more excited about going into Big Ten play with these guys here than I was last year.”