MADISON – Paul Chryst is only going to tip his quarterback hand once a season.
After naming senior Bart Houston the starter a week prior to the season opener against LSU, Wisconsin’s head coach would not comment on who will start under center for the Badgers’ Big Ten opener against No.8 Michigan State Saturday.
“Both have to be ready to play, to be sure,” Chryst said when asked point blank if Houston is his starter. “I’m positive of that. Both have to go. I told them there are going to be games where they’re both going to play.
“We need both of them to keep growing and go for us. I’ll let the week determine all this stuff, with who’s going to play tailback, who’s going to play left guard, who’s going to play quarterback, who’s going to play receiver, who’s going to be the nickel corner.”
A report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel late Sunday night, citing two unnamed sources, said Alex Hornibrook would get the start against the Spartans (2-0). The redshirt freshman ignited a stagnate offense late in the third quarter of UW’s 23-17 win over Georgia State Saturday, leading the offense on three scoring drives and successfully running out the final 3 minutes, 12 seconds of the game.
The only drive he didn’t convert into points ended when receiver George Rushing whiffed on a catch attempt, leading to an interception. Hornibrook finished 8-for-12 for 122 yards and one touchdown, in addition to the interception.
Houston was still listed as the starting quarterback on Monday’s depth chart. He went 10-for-18 for 91 yards against the Panthers.
“I was able to talk with both Alex and Bart (Sunday),” Chryst said. “Really what I told them (has) been consistent with what I’ve told them all along and have been telling everyone. This week, we’ve got to prepare, and they both have to do a great job of preparation. I said this when we named Bart the starter - you earn the right to start. Alex earned the right to play. I told both kids that. I wanted to play them both. We will need them both. For us to be as good as we can, I still believe that we’re going to need both those guys.”
Making his collegiate debut in the 54-10 victory over Akron Sept.10, Hornibrook finished 5-for-5 for 61 yards and a touchdown, leading UW on three scoring drives and running out the clock on the fourth.
After the Badgers scored just six points, converted on 2 of 7 third downs in the first half and gained only seven yards on its first second-half drive against Georgia State, Chryst made the switch.
“I thought it was a good change up for us,” Chryst said. “I look forward to those guys working this week.”
With Houston under center, the Badgers averaged 4.52 yards per play and scored the six points on five trips inside Georgia State’s 40. UW’s offense averaged 5.81 yards per play with Hornibrook under center and scored 17 points on its three trips inside the GSU 40.
According to senior receiver Rob Wheelwright, Hornibrook was confident when he came into the huddle, allowing him to make good throws, good reads and effectively move the ball.
“He’s always had that (poise) ever since I first met Alex,” Wheelwright said, adding it’s not tough to adjust to two different quarterbacks. “He always wanted to put in that extra work. He’s very out spoken when it comes to practice. Just to see him go out there and have fun and make some plays, we all knew he could do it.”
Unusual Mental Errors
Watching the film revealed missed tackles, missed gap assignments, missed keys and missed calls, all things that outside linebacker Vince Biegel called “uncharacteristic” of his group.
“Give credit to Georgia State, they took advantage of our mistakes,” Biegel said.
After allowing only 86 yards in the first half, the Panthers registered 216 in the second half, including 190 through the air based on quarterback Conner Manning getting the ball out after quick three-step drops and hitting the defense with quick slants that went for big gains.
Saturday was the first game without nickel cornerback Natrell Jamerson being available in the secondary, but Biegel said all the mistakes were easily correctable moving forward.
“We’ve got guys in our locker room that understand and want to make those corrections,” Biegel said. “That’s encouraging to be able to have those games, learn from that film and get better.”
Red Zone Malfunctions
When asked about his team’s red-zone efficiency, Chryst’s answer was blunt: “it drives me nuts.”
Regarded as a mastermind on offense, Wisconsin has made 15 trips into the red zone through three games and struggled to come away with points – ranked 110th with an overall success rate of 73.3 percent (11-for-15) and 91st nationally in red-zone touchdowns (8-for-15).
In Chryst’s final three seasons at Wisconsin as offensive coordinator, the Badgers converted 90 percent of its trips into points and at least 72 percent were touchdowns. Last year UW finished 53rd in red-zone efficiency (46-for-54, 85.2 percent) and 39th in touchdowns scored per trip (35-for-54, 64.8).
“You appreciate the points when you can get them, but you’ve got to get touchdowns,” Chryst said. “That's an obvious area where we’ve got to get better.”
The red zone has been a problem in every game, including two games in where Wisconsin committed a turnover that prevented any points from being scored.
“I do spend a ton of time thinking of how we can be the best we can be and we haven't taken advantage of those opportunities,” Chryst said. “Two of the three games we've played in to this point have been close games. That's part of the reason why they're close.”
Rare Spartan Showdown
Unless they are a redshirt senior, no one on Wisconsin’s roster has been a part of any game against Michigan State. The Spartans haven’t been on the Badgers’ schedule since they won a 16-13 overtime decision in Madison.
“They’re a well-coached team,” said Biegel, who was redshirting after being injured early in the 2012 season. “I think they do a lot of similar things to our offense; they want to control the clock, they want to control the ball. We’re looking forward to the opportunity. They’re a great team.”
Michigan State has won three straight regular season meetings and four straight in East Lansing.
Extra Points: Chryst did not seem fazed with the depth at tailback, even though Corey Clement (left leg), Taiwan Deal (right leg) and Bradrick Shaw (right shoulder) were all listed as questionable on the depth chart …. OL Jon Dietzen (right leg) and DE Billy Hirschfeld (left leg) were also listed as questionable. Tight end Troy Fumagalli was not listed on the injury report after being injured in the first quarter Saturday … The Big Ten announced Wisconsin’s Oct.1 game at No.4 Michigan will kick off at 2:30 p.m. CT and be televised on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2.