MADISON - With 5:54 remaining in the third quarter of its final nonconference contest, Wisconsin’s offense badly needed a spark and quick.
Gaining only 208 yards in about 39 minutes, not capitalizing on opportunities on third downs and bumbling in the red zone, head coach Paul Chryst made the decision to replace Bart Houston with redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. It paid dividends.
Hornibrook, who saw mop-up action in last week's win against Akron, charged up an offense to the tune of 17 points in less than a quarter-and-a-half to lift the ninth-ranked Badgers to a 23-17 win against Georgia State Saturday.
“I was hoping just that,” head coach Paul Chryst said when asked if Hornibrook could provide a spark, “to try to get a little something going.”
A week after leading Wisconsin (3-0) to three touchdown drives, Hornibrook led the offense to three more scoring drives – albeit these being more critical - and completed 8-of-12 passes for 122 yards and one touchdown and a deflected interception.
“He did what he was supposed to do,” senior wide receiver Rob Wheelwright said. “Coming in, having to step up and make some plays, he did everything we needed him to do to get the victory.”
The decision itself wasn’t entirely because of Houston’s poor play, according to Chryst. Though UW’s offense only scored six points in the first half, they accumulated 201 total yards on 40 plays. Eating up almost 19 minutes of the play clock, Houston led two other drives that should have resulted in points.
After receiving the ball on Georgia State’s 23-yard line after a muffed punt, the Badgers drove to one-yard line, only to see redshirt freshman running back Bradrick Shaw – playing heavy snaps because of injuries to Corey Clement and Taiwan Deal - fumble the ball and squander an opportunity for add-on points.
With 40 seconds left in the first half, Houston drove the Badgers down the field 55 yards in six plays, but junior kicker Rafael Gaglianone missed a chip-shot 30-yard field goal.
“It is tough,” Houston said. “One of our goals is being better on third downs and finishing drives. It doesn’t feel good to not score points.”
Making his third career start, Houston completed only 8-of-15 passes for 81 yards after two quarters. When Wisconsin’s first drive of the second half stalled after six plays, gaining only seven yards, Chryst made the change.
“We were just off a little bit on some things,” Chryst admitted. “We've got to look back at it. You know, it just seemed like it was a little bit -- we just weren't in rhythm. I didn't feel like he was and initially thought, ‘Just give him a little chance just to kind of breathe and see it,’ and didn't know how the game would play out necessarily.”
After the Panthers cut the lead to 6-3, insert Hornibrook, who had shown throughout the fall his ability to place a nice deep ball to stretch defenses. He completed two passes on that drive to wide receiver Jazz Peavy for 29 (wide open) and to George Rushing for 19 yards (contested over the middle). Tailback Dare Ogunbowale took it in from two yards out a couple of plays later for a 13-3 lead.
“The first drive was good; I was just trying to get something going with the offense, and there was a couple of good routes by the receivers,” Hornibrook said. “Obviously the line up front -- I had a lot of time back there. It was just like practice. We were moving down the field.”
His one interception wasn’t necessarily his fault. After Georgia State answered with a touchdown of its own, Hornibrook moved the offense efficiently down the field until a pass intended for Rushing went through his hands, tipped in the air and intercepted at the GSU 32.
Showing a maturity beyond a second year player, Hornibrook said he told Rushing he would come back to him if the same play was run.
“It wasn’t something that I felt they got us on that play,” Hornibrook said. “It was just some small mistake we made, and I felt confident in the looks and everything we were doing, so I was ready to go on the next drive.”
When the Panthers took their 17-13 lead with 11:28 remaining in the game, Hornibrook again took control of the offense. Eight plays and 59 yards later, Hornibrook found redshirt freshman Kyle Penniston for a one-yard touchdown for the eventual game-winning score.
The southpaw led the Badgers on one more scoring drive in the final frame, which ended with a Gaglianone 41-yard field goal to cap the scoring.
“He is so calm, under control, never high and never low,” redshirt sophomore center Michael Deiter said of Hornibrook.
After the game, Chryst said Houston was still the starting quarterback and wasn’t planning on anything other than appreciating their victory. While there will inevitably be buzz about who the starter will be next week at No.12 Michigan State in the conference opener, Hornibrook won’t change his expectations.
“Just the same as this week, the week before,” he said. “If they tell me to go in, I’m ready to go. If not, I’m ready to sit on the sidelines and wait for that chance to go in.”