The No. 11/No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers begin their gauntlet of daunting Big Ten games on Saturday against the No. 8 Michigan State Spartans.
Among a variety of questions, one looms especially large for the Badgers: who’s going to start at quarterback?
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus reported late Sunday that redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook was set to start in place of redshirt senior Bart Houston.
When Wisconsin released its Week 4 depth chart, however, Houston was still listed as the No. 1 quarterback—with no "OR" denotation signifying a position battle was taking place.
Head coach Paul Chryst elaborated on the situation during Monday’s press conference even before reporters had the opportunity to ask.
"I was able to talk with both Alex and Bart yesterday, and really what I told them is consistent with what I’ve told them all along and I’ve been telling everyone: this week, we got to prepare," Chryst said. "They both have to do a great job of preparation.
"I said this when we named Bart the starter, that he earned the right to start, and Alex earned the right to play. I told both kids that, and we wound up playing both. We would need them both, and for us to be as good as we can, I still believe that, that we’re going to need both of those guys."
Hornibrook relieved Houston on Wisconsin’s second drive of the third quarter in a 6-3 game and delivered a much needed spark to a stagnant, out-of-rhythm offense. He completed eight of 12 passes for 122 yards with one touchdown pass and one interception. With the southpaw on the field, the Badgers scored 17 of their 23 points in their close win over Georgia State.
In two games of action, Hornibrook is 13-of-17 for 183 yards and two touchdowns.
Though Chryst was looking for a charge to his floundering offense, Houston didn’t necessarily play poorly, something the head coach admitted immediately after the game. The Dublin, Calif., native completed 10 of 18 passes for 91 yards, and his time with the offense should have contributed to at least 10 more points.
Fresh off a gift of a muffed punt attempt, redshirt freshman running back Bradrick Shaw fumbled at the one-yard line and the Panthers recovered. Then, after Houston drove the Badgers 55 yards in 40 seconds to set up a Rafael Gaglianone 30-yard field goal, the Brazilian kicker sailed it wide left.
Heading into Saturday’s game, all eyes will be looking at who leads that offense onto the field.
"He’s got poise and he’s certainly has enough of the natural abilities—arm strength and accuracy that give him a chance—and that’s also what I’ve really liked and appreciated out of Bart this year is the way he’s working," Chryst said when asked what he liked about Hornibrook. "I think all quarterbacks have to be tough, and I think both of them have that physical toughness and that mental toughness.
"I think those are probably some of the things just how Alex approaches it and plays, and puts himself in the moment at practice. He looks the same in practice as he does in games. He doesn’t morph into someone else."
Highlights from Chryst’s press conference:
When asked directly who will start:
"Both have to be ready to play to be sure. I’m positive of that, and both have to go. I told them there’s going to be games where they’re both going to play. You do it in hockey—you have two goalies. You can have the best pitcher in baseball and he doesn’t always finish the game, so we need both of them to keep growing and go for us. You know what, I’ll let the week determine all of 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[back], who’s going to go there."
On Wisconsin’s red-zone inefficiency:
"Oh it drives me nuts. Those are opportunities -- you don’t know when you get them or how you get them."
On Michigan State and the rivalry between the two programs:
"It was just good football, and you knew it and the kids knew it. It was fun to play those games because you know you had to be on, and you knew you’d be challenged. I think we knew each other well. They knew what we were going to do, so there was certain things that you knew you were going to see, and then you knew you were going to get a change-up. That was always challenging and enjoyable. I think what it was mostly or as much—those games meant something."
On his level of concern in the running game with three running backs listed as questionable on the Monday injury report:
"I’m concerned about the running game every week until you do something. We’ll find out. We have guys that are questionable, and we’ll see where that goes. I know that we’ll have a good plan and we know that we’ve got to play well, and you’re going to have to be physical against this team. I’m confident in the group and how they’re going to approach this week, and we’ll have a good plan for the guys."
Can he recall a more difficult stretch to open up conference play?
"No, but I’ve thought every game is big. I think that’s why you got to approach every week as its own week, and be in that moment and enjoy that. At the end of the year, the story will be written but it’s only written on the actions [of the team], so the best way for us to act and be is in the moment. We’re excited it’s Michigan State week."