Whether or not the situation was handled right, Wisconsin squeezed every ounce of talent and ability out of quarterbacks Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook, so much so that the Badgers were undefeated when both players played – a perfect 9-0.
After biding his time for four years, only seeing the field as a rugby-style punter and a reserve role at Illinois in 2015, Houston threw for 200+ yards in his first two games, struggled in his third start and had the starting job removed. He never complained, only stating he’ll do whatever the coaching staff needed him to do.
Over the final six games of the regular season he completed 67.6 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and one pick. The yard totals weren’t high (less than 125 in each game), but Houston took care of the ball with three touchdowns and one pick. He also showed a knack for lowering his shoulder and fighting for a first down.
His final two games were the best of the season. Starting both the Big Ten title game and the Cotton Bowl, Houston went 27-for-33 (81.8 percent) for 297 yards and no turnovers. In fact he was a drop away from going a perfect 12-for-12 against the Broncos in the Cotton Bowl, showing off his arm strength and ability to make the smart/right reads. On third downs in the bowl game, he was 4-for-5 and converted on distances of 13, 15, five and eight. His only incompletion was the drop in the end zone.
Hornibrook told me after the game Monday that this season has provided him countless learning lessons that he will be able to carry forward into next spring. Confidence and building arm strength will be the big things he needs to improve. He led the team in yards (1,262), touchdowns (nine) and interceptions (seven), but a chunk of that came in a five game stretch (816 yards, four TDs, six interceptions) from Georgia State to Iowa. Once UW really integrated the two quarterback system, Hornibrook didn’t throw for more than 95 yards the final six games he played.
Was the quarterback play spectacular? No. Was it effective? Yes, and that’s really all you can for from two young quarterbacks trying to lead the offense.
After being held to 71 rushing yards against Michigan, Corey Clement promised that Wisconsin would use the upcoming bye week to analyze the film and get things corrected. It was prophetic.
Wisconsin’s running game delivered from mid-October on, running for at least 167 yards in every game and breaking the 200-yard rushing barrier six times. Clement was the big reason why, rushing for at least 100 yards in seven of the final nine games.
Clement finished averaging 4.4 yards per carry, scored a team-best 15 touchdowns and finished with 1,375 yards. Of his 314 carries Clement only lost 46 yards and was important in putting the Badgers in short-yardage situations. UW converted at least 50 percent on third downs in five games this past season, including going 7-for-11 against Western Michigan. He missed the Georgia State game due to injury (and UW almost lost), but Clement’s health throughout conference play was critical to the team’s success.
Also having a say in the rush attack was senior Dare Ogunbowale and freshman Bradrick Shaw, players at the opposite end of the career spectrum. The team’s leading rusher a year ago, Ogunbowale started the year as the No.3 back but contributed in the running, passing and blocking game. He had two 100-yard running games (none bigger than 120 yards on 11 carries – mostly draw plays – in the overtime win against Nebraska) and had 24 catches for 208 yards and a score (the biggest one being his four catches for 51 yards against Iowa). The team’s offensive captain, Ogunbowale mastered his role.
Shaw was elevated to a higher role once Taiwan Deal’s ankle injury flared back up and got better as the season went on. He averaged 56.8 yards from Nov.5 to Dec.3 to show his consistency/durability and had a three 20-yard touchdown runs that flashed his big-play potential.
As I wrote in my 2017 depth chart story, the tag team work of Austin Ramesh and Alec Ingold was tremendous and gave the Badgers a punch. Ramesh was a solid blocker who finished with 58 yards and 17 catches, including the game-sealing run in the bowl game, and Ingold finished with 99 total yards and four scores.
UW averaged over 4.0 yards per carry seven times this season and over 5.0 four times. The Badgers time of possession of 34:58 was best in the country and in large part due to running game.
Senior Rob Wheelwright didn’t deliver the statistical season he was probably hoping for (34 catches, 448 yards, one score), but the senior remained healthy throughout the season and drew enough extra coverage that opened up opportunities for other receivers to make plays in one-on-one situations. Both of those made Wisconsin a better offense and Jazz Peavy a better receiver.
Peavy averaged 14.8 yards per catch and led the receivers with five touchdowns, all the first scores of his career. And while he was held without a catch against Western Michigan, Peavy did another one of his skilled traits – the end around. Right after Western Michigan cut the lead to 14-7, Peavy ripped off a 51-yard scamper to the short side of the field. It was a drive that led to three points before halftime and took back some of the lost momentum.
For the season Peavy rushed 21 times for 320 yards – fourth-best on the team – and only lost two yards on all those jet sweeps, which is remarkable. His touchdown run at Northwestern and his one to the short side of the field against Minnesota changed momentum in those games.
George Rushing delivered 12 catches as the number three receiver and true freshman Quintez Cephus earned more playing time for his ability to be a solid blocker, springing Clement on big runs against Minnesota and Penn State and helping out many others. He also showed some catching ability, hauling in a 57-yard pass against Iowa that set up an important score. That catch turned out to be the longest of the season for UW.
True freshman A.J. Taylor did the bulk of his work in the nonconference season but did have two carries for 24 yards at Iowa on the end around, including a 23-yarder.
The future is bright for this group, losing only Wheelwright, but the production can’t all rest on Peavy’s shoulders.
When he gets a match up in his favor, like he did in the Cotton Bowl, Troy Fumagalli showed just how dangerous he can be. His six catches on seven targets for 83 yards changed the course of the game. With Western Michigan forced to sell out on the run, Fumagalli took advantage of his undersized one-on-one matchup.
Four of Fumagalli’s six receptions were on third down, and five of his catches went for first downs or a touchdowns. That outburst – coupled with his seven catches for 100 yards against LSU and his seven catches for 84 yards against Ohio State - helped him surpass Peavy for the team lead with 47 catches. He added 584 yards and two touchdowns. Fumagalli has also grown by leaps and bounds as a blocker and was responsible for a number of critical blocks this season to spring big plays and/or touchdowns.
Kyle Penniston is waiting in the wings and showed some flash with his play. His 54-yard catch at Iowa and his touchdown grab against Georgia State were big plays. He’ll have another year to soak up the knowledge of Fumagalli before becoming UW’s veteran tight end.
The year started with a “here-we-go-again” feel to it. Having already lost senior Dan Voltz to retirement in fall camp, Wisconsin dealt with injuries to both of its left guards, forcing a jumbled lineup through the first four games of the season and even into conference play. UW was so indecisive with its lines in the 17-9 win at Iowa that offensive coordinator/line coach Joe Rudolph used four different lineups in the first five drives.
By the end of the season, the Badgers were a highly capable unit that was functioning in both the run and the pass. A prime example was Clement’s first touchdown run in the Cotton Bowl where the line parted the seas.
Junior Ryan Ramczyk’s ability to jump from division 3 to division 1 starter was tremendous, especially considering he rarely faltered against a schedule that featured seven AP top 12 teams and talented fronts of Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern.
Jon Dietzen and Micah Kapoi suffered injuries in the first two games of the season that caused some headaches at the position, but the position was better from mid-October on once both players returned healthy (and rotated with each other until Dietzen took over the position).
Center Michael Deiter’s value to the team was also as important as Ramczyk’s. With the injuries at left guard, Deiter was flipped to the position for road games at Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa and the home game against Ohio State. Not only did he not have any snap issues with either quarterback, Deiter could get out and space and deliver a big hit on a pull block, like the one that sprung Ogunbowale’s game-winning touchdown run in overtime against Nebraska.
Credit also to Brett Connors, who stepped in at center for those four games in a tough situation and did his best to manage things.
Beau Benzschawel was both hit and miss in his first full season playing right guard, but David Edwards, for how raw and inexperienced he is, was tremendous at right tackle, anchoring a spot that was struggling under the eventually-injured Jacob Maxwell and turned into a strength. His upside with three years remaining is off the charts.
UW gave up a fair amount of pressures, hits and sacks, but this is still a young group that will continue to get better with time and seasoning.