The Badgers’ two-quarterback system is atypical in college football, having one pocket passer and another semi-pocket passer who can move a little bit because he ran the veer in high school. It’s also a rarity because it’s worked.
The Badgers are a perfect 8-0 when both Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook have played, splitting halves in two nonconference games and a rotation that began at Iowa on Oct. 22. With both seeing action, the pair combined to complete 62 percent of their passes for 937 yards and six touchdowns against just two interceptions over the final six games of the conference season.
“I thought it would work as long as Alex and I stayed as unselfish as we could,” Houston said. “Once you start looking over your shoulder, the system will break.”
That’s been Houston’s motto his entire career – doing whatever it takes to benefit the team. It’s easier said than done when you go from not playing to playing than the opposite.
Houston started the Badgers’ season opener vs. No.5 LSU at Lambeau Field, a 16-14 Wisconsin win, in addition to non-conference games vs. Akron and Georgia State, with Hornibrook serving as the backup.
After Hornibrook led Wisconsin to a come-from-behind victory over Georgia State, the redshirt freshman earned his first starting nod at No. 8 Michigan State and went on to start all nine conference games.
Through it all, Houston never complained.
“Bart is someone we’ve always had great confidence in,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “He’s an awesome kid and he is a competitor, and that’s what you get with him. This team believes in him, and I love that about him. I think he’s taken a tremendous approach, and he’s worked. When we’ve had Alex in he’s supported to help him and used it as motivation to help himself. When he’s been in he’s stepped up and continued to grow.”
Since debuting the new offense against Iowa, Houston’s presence in the huddle has created a spark. He helped the offense drive 58 yards on eight plays and threw a touchdown pass on his first series against the Hawkeyes, giving UW the lead for good. Houston also helped the offense score 28 points in the second quarter against Purdue and helped UW dig out of a couple deficits against Minnesota.
“As we finished (the season), I think it’s been a good approach for those two,” Rudolph said. “It’s nice to know that Hornibrook knows he can come out and take a look at things at times, and I think Bart can’t wait to get in there and go. Those two have found a way to complement each other.”
The final three weeks were Wisconsin’s three highest scoring games in conference play.
“That’s when we finally found our confidence or our stride,” Houston said. “That’s when the offense was clicking no matter who was in. We just went out and played.”
Head coach Paul Chryst has declined to name who will start Monday’s Cotton Bowl against Western Michigan (13-0), but the Badgers appear to be in decent shape no matter what.
In Hornibrook (1,243) and Houston (1,086) the Badgers have a pair of 1,000-yard passers in a season for the first time since 2001, when both Brooks Bollinger (1,257) and Jim Sorgi (1,096) hit that mark.
Houston also appears to be brimming with confidence after throwing for 174 yards on 16 of 21 passing in the Big Ten title game against Penn State, his first career Big Ten start after Hornibrook was ruled out with a head injury.
“There were times where it was hard,” Houston said. “It’s not something every kid wants, something no kid wants is to lose their starting job and have to come in as a reliever. As we’ve gone through the season, it really started to make sense that my time on the field and on the sidelines, I have to do what’s best for the team.
“If the coaches think it’s me on the sideline, on the field or whatever part in the game, whatever they decide I’m going to do that to the best of my abilities.”
Balancing the Gimmicks
When Wisconsin plays on Monday, it will represent a 30 day break since the Badgers’ 38-31 loss to the Nittany lions in Indianapolis.
The Badgers have been mostly straightforward with their play calling throughout the regular season, limiting the trick plays to a fake punt against Illinois and not much else. Having spent plenty of time in the film room preparing for the Broncos, Rudolph acknowledges that the mind can wander to the thought of throwing some new curve balls not yet seen on film.
“You’ve got to be smart because you are in (the film room) a lot and you watch a lot of film,” Rudolph said. “There are a lot of things you think and you like, but it got both ways. You can see a lot of things that may be new in preparation for you, and your preparation has to be such that the guys have you have confidence executing. Here and there, you try to pick the best wrinkles.”
Although Chryst doesn’t stray far from what works, Rudolph says Wisconsin’s head coach likes to push the envelope and said the Badgers have worked on a number of things throughout the season they have yet to run in a game.
“There are things you’ve practice all year that you haven’t got to because the situation hasn’t been right or it’s good against these types of looks but we didn’t get to it in his game or this game,” Rudolph said. “You keep growing and letting the guys grab more ownership of special (plays) like those.”
Youngsters Enjoy Prep Work
As Wisconsin typically does with its allotted bowl practices, the Badgers spent the first chunk of time giving its seniors and starters time off in order to work with the reserves and freshmen. That was music to the ears of freshman lineman Tyler Biadasz, who has spent his redshirt season making a position change to center.
“It’s good experience for all us to get a real feel for scrimmaging and working together,” Biadasz said. “I personally think it’s great for me. These are really important reps to show what I’m made out of. It’s good experience to get in the flow of things and get better.”
A two-time state champion at Amherst, Biadasz was originally designated as a defensive lineman when he signed his national letter of intent before being moved to the offensive line. With center George Panos forced to retire because of injuries, Biadasz was moved to center and sits as the No.3 backup to sophomores Michael Deiter and Brett Connors.
“I think I’ve grown a lot playing center because I had never played center before,” Biadasz said. “I’ve progressed through fall camp and the season. Now it’s just the little details and trying to get one percent better each day.”
As important as the bowl practices have been, Biadasz has been able to travel every road game with the exception of Michigan and Purdue, giving him valuable insight to how business is conducted away from home.
“It’s a great experience and learning point to how things work and what’s expected,” Biadasz said. “it gets me excited for the future.”