MADISON, Wis. — This is not the right time for No. 9 Wisconsin to have questions at quarterback, not with Big Ten play starting next week.
But backup Alex Hornibrook may have put himself back into a competition with starter Bart Houston behind center after sparking the Badgers’ sluggish offense on Saturday.
Hornibrook led three second-half scoring drives, helping Wisconsin avert an embarrassing upset with a 23-17 win on Saturday over Georgia State.
Hornibrook took over late in the third quarter with Wisconsin stuck in an offensive malaise. The freshman finished 8 of 12 for 122 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Penniston with 7:25 left to give the Badgers the lead for good, 20-17.
Houston, a senior making his third career start, was 10 of 18 for 91 yards.
“We were just off a little bit on some things,” coach Paul Chryst said.
Wisconsin was also missing two of its top running backs for most the game, and pass-catching tight end Troy Fumagalli got hurt in the first quarter.
Whatever the reasons, the Badgers (3-0) head into the conference opener next week at No. 12 Michigan State with fresh questions about the offense.
Houston beat out Hornibrook for the job in training camp.
“We just got done with the game. Like I said, Bart’s our starter for right now,” Chyrst said. “I’m proud of what Alex did when he came in. I’m not planning anything right now other than appreciating this win.”
GEORGIA STATE: The Panthers can build on a respectable effort against a Big Ten power after losing to Ball State and Air Force in their first two games. With Wisconsin shorthanded in the backfield, a defense that was allowing an FBS-worst 394.5 yards rushing per game gave up just 187 on Saturday. On offense, coach Miles’ team softened up Wisconsin’s rough-and-tumble defense with quick and short passes over the middle.
“In a situation where you’ve got a chance to shock the world and come that close and have it slip out of your hands when you have a lead in the fourth quarter … that adds a little bit more pain to it,” receiver Robert Davis said.
WISCONSIN: Don’t put the blame for Wisconsin’s early offensive problems solely on Houston.
“I feel for Bart in a sense that so much focus will go on that,” Chryst said. “I thought there were some things today we’ll look at and I’m sure we can clean up and correct.”
The Badgers need to work on their offense inside the 30 after having to settle for two field goals on two first-quarter drives. They came away scoreless on two other drives after losing a fumble near the goal line and missing a 30-yard field goal at the end of the first half.
“We just weren’t in rhythm. That’s it,” Houston said.
Fumagalli and running back Taiwan Deal both left with right leg injuries after Wisconsin’s first drive, and the team was already without top running back Corey Clement, who sat after rolling his left ankle in the 54-10 win over Akron on Sept. 10.
Georgia State (0-3) played well after losing its first two games by a combined 79-35.
Conner Manning threw for a career-high 269 yards and a score on 20-of-29 passing. Kyler Neal’s 9-yard touchdown run with 11:36 left gave the Panthers a brief lead before the Badgers defense reasserted itself.
“Our kids fought every down. There are no moral victories for Georgia State. I’m very disappointed,” coach Trent Miles said.
The closer-than-expected win might knock Wisconsin down a spot or two when the next poll is released on Sunday. Even without Clement, the Badgers were expected to roll against a team predicted to finish in the middle of the Sun Belt Conference standings.
GEORGIA STATE: After a bye next week, the Panthers wrap up a three-game road swing with a trip to Sun Belt favorite Appalachian State on Oct. 1.
WISCONSIN: The two-week honeymoon period is over in an otherwise brutal schedule . The trip to play the Spartans starts a four-game stretch against AP Top 25 opponents.
AP College Football: http://collegefootball.ap.org/
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