MADISON – Senior day lived up to its billing for the University of Wisconsin.
Running back Corey Clement rushed for 100 yards with two touchdowns; outside linebacker Vince Biegelrecorded eight tackles and two half-sacks and defensive backs Sojourn Shelton and Leo Musso combined for three critical interceptions in the final two quarters.
And while his final stats might not jump off the page, quarterback Bart Houston led the offense to five scoring drives and played the majority of the game in place of injured starter Alex Hornibrook in No.5 Wisconsin’s 31-17 victory over Minnesota.
“He competes, and it was - certainly don’t like the circumstances of it - but I was happy for him to be able to play the way he did and finish out at home on senior day,” head coach Paul Chryst said about Houston, who finished the game 9-for-14 for 123 yards. “He takes a lot of pride in helping this team, and I thought he did.”
The win allowed the Badgers (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) to keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 13th straight meeting, something Houston had been preparing all week.
“I got into it. I was practicing earlier this week. I was literally grabbing a barbell, going two sets of 10 each way,” Houston said, laughing while simulating the weight lifting motion to reporters.
For long stretches, it appeared Houston wasn’t going to get the chance. The Badgers led for only 14 seconds in the first half, saw its running game bottled up and struggled to develop a consistent flow.
Wisconsin trailed 17-7 at halftime, but Houston did provide the lone first half bright spot.
Coming in on the third series of the game, the typical fashion deployed by Chryst in previous weeks, Houston guided the offense down the field 80 yards in 10 plays. He completed all three pass attempts for 38 yards, including an impressive 22-yard completion to true freshman Quintez Cephus where he showed patience and delivered a precise strike to his target.
UW scored three plays later on Alec Ingold’s one-yard dive for a 7-3 lead.
Minnesota took the lead back in 14 seconds, and the final nine minutes of the quarter saw Hornibrook knocked out of the game after a hit near the Minnesota sideline, dropped passes in various situations and easily being outplayed by the Gophers defense.
Houston, like many of his teammates, didn’t flinch.
“My message was, ‘You don’t need to do anything extraordinary. You just need to be you, and be the good you,’” Houston explained. “Everybody has a task on this team, and there’s a reason why we trust them to do it -- and just go do it. It’s easier said than done.”
With Hornibrook ruled out starting at the beginning of the third quarter, Houston got Wisconsin’s offense back on track in one series. Twelve plays and 60 yards later, senior Andrew Endicott converted a 33-yard attempt to bring Wisconsin within a touchdown.
And when the Wisconsin defense created golden opportunities for its offense, Houston helped the offense take advantage.
They cashed in from the 19-yard line after Shelton’s long interception return with Houston completing a 16-yard pass to senior Rob Wheelwright on second down and a 2-yard touchdown run by Clement to tie the game.
UW delivered the final blow after another interception started a drive at the Minnesota 8, with Houston handing off to senior Dare Ogunbowale for an eight-yard touchdown and a 31-17 advantage.
“For Bart to take over after Alex got hurt the way he did, we never skipped a beat,” center Michael Deiter said. “Nothing but confidence Bart has in himself and this offense. It shows. He plays with a lot of confidence and it’s fun to watch.”
Houston’s season has been a microcosm for his career. A highly-touted quarterback in high school, Houston was mostly known as a situational punter during the Gary Andersen era before playing well in relief of Joel Stave in a win at Illinois last season. He eventually won the starting job for the first three games of the season before giving way to Hornibrook, but over the last six games has been used as the change-of-pace signal caller Wisconsin’s needed to boost the offense.
Since Wisconsin has gone to the two quarterback system, Houston has completed 25 of 37 passes for 385 yards and three touchdowns to only one interception in a relief role.
“Feels good,” Houston said when asked about his emotions. “Could not have been able to do it without my family and especially my teammates and this coaching staff. They’ve helped me through countless hours and days throughout this season.”
“I haven’t really thought about it being the last one in Camp Randall. We’re going to have a couple of practices in there, if it’s not too cold. You don’t think about that until after, and that’s what’s special about our group. We don’t think about what’s going to happen, we always think about the one play, the one drive, the one game when we’re preparing.”
The next game is a big one: Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game against No.7 Penn State in Indianapolis, which could vault Wisconsin into the College Football Playoff. Come Sunday, the Badgers will do what they’ve done after each of their 12 contests this season.
“We got another reset button to press (Sunday),” Houston said. “Celebrate (Saturday) with our family and friends and teammates and get after Penn State (Sunday).”