BY JEFF BERNIER
Normally, playing a football game without the services of your best player would be a tough scenario to overcome. However, the Wisconsin Badgers had nearly an entire season last year of gaming for this very thing. Star tailback Corey Clement was held out of Saturday morning’s matchup with the Georgia State Panthers. Having Clement at or near 100% is critical for the Badgers heading into conference play next week.
The decision was probably very easy for head coach Paul Chryst, in that Georgia State is dead last in the FBS in run defense, having surrendered nearly 400 yards per game to opposing rushers in their first two games.
The Georgia State Panthers (0-3) could not pull off the massive upset of the #9 Wisconsin Badgers (3-0) on their home turf, falling by a score of 23-17. It took a little longer than it maybe should have for the Badgers to seal the deal against the visiting Panthers, as the Badgers struggled to convert third downs early, as well as having to overcome a bad turnover near their own goal line and a missed field goal by the previously perfect Rafael Gaglianone.
The Badgers easily played their worst half of football here in 2016 in the first half.
After turning their first two drives of the game into just two field goals by Gagialnone, their next several possessions resulted in a fumble, a punt, and a missed 30 yard field goal attempt as time ran out in the first half. It wasn’t so much a result of good defense by Georgia State, but an inability to execute by the Badgers’ offense, lead by struggling senior quarterback Bart Houston.
Wisconsin would take just a 6-0 lead into intermission. Georgia State took this small moral victory into halftime, being only down one score and after being held to just two yards of total offense in the first quarter.
After a punt each by Georgia State and Wisconsin to open up the third quater, it would be the Panthers who would score first, turning a 10 play, 49 yard drive into a 45 yard field goal by their senior kicker Rogier Ten Lohuis, halving the Badgers’ lead 6-3. Lohuis, who had another 45 yard attempt blocked in the first half, was playing in only his third game of American football after making the team.
Following the Georgia State field goal, head coach Paul Chryst would bench Bart Houston in favor of freshman quaterback Alex Hornibrook. The move payed immediate dividends, as Wisconsin would finally hit paydirt with about three minutes left in the third. Hornibrook completed passes of 29 and 19 yards to set up Bucky. Dare Ogunbowale would punch it in from two yards out, making it 13-3 Wisconsin.
Georgia State quaterback Connor Manning really heated up in the second half, after not being called on much in the first half. His go-to wide receiver, senior Robert Davis became a handful for the Badgers defense. Manning connected with Davis on a 13 yard touchdown pass, pulling the Panthers within three points.
Hornibrook would be intercepted by Chandon Sullivan on the next Badgers’ possession. Three plays, and 69 yards later, Georgia State would score a go-ahead touchdown, making it 17-13, and leaving a sold out Camp Randall Stadium in stunned silence.
Alex Hornibrook would shake off the earlier INT and lead a crucial drive for the Badgers going 59 yards on eight plays. A 29 yard throw and catch from Hornibrook to freshman Kyle Penniston took the Badgers offense down to the Georgia State 17 yard line. Facing a third and goal from one yard out, following 2 failed run attempts, Wisconsin would go play-action as Hornibrook rolled out to his right, finding Penniston once again on a short out route in the back of the endzone as the Badgers regained the lead, 20-17.
The Badgers defense would hold, forcing a punt from Georgia State and then converting their own drive into a 41 yard field goal from Gaglianone.
The Panthers, needing a touchdown and extra point to take the lead, would be forced to punt once again. Wisconsin, needing just one first down as Georgia State had just one timeout remaining, would get that first down, finally ending the Panthers’ spirited upset bid.
Wisconsin’s defense gave up an uncharacteristic 317 yards of total offense to Georgia State.
The Badgers would rack up 400 yards of offense themselves, making just enough plays down the stretch to avoid a disasterous loss before heading into conference play.
Freshman Alex Hornibrook rescued a sputtering offense, finishing 8/12 for 122 yards and the game-winning touchdown, all in less than two quarters.
Dare Ogunbowale and freshman Bradrick Shaw lead Bucky with 65 and 62 yards rushing respectively.
The Badgers lost one of their top receiving targets in the first half as Troy Fumagalli would not return.
With the win, Wisconsin ran their home winning streak against non-conference opponents to 37 straight games, the longest current streak in the FBS.
It wasn’t the runaway blowout many had presumed coming into the game but Wisconsin held serve, moving to 3-0 before they embark on the toughest four game stretch in the nation. It all begins next Saturday as the Wisconsin Badgers head to Michigan State to face the #12 Spartans (1-0).