MADISON, Wis. — Seven minutes, 30 seconds remained in a game that was over for all intents and purposes, when Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen pulled his offensive starters from the field.
Quarterback Curt Phillips, who narrowly lost out on the starting job to Joel Stave, was Andersen’s man for what would be the final drive. Phillips, meanwhile, had other plans. The sixth-year senior approached Andersen with a simple question: Why not let Bart Houston take those snaps?
And so Houston, a redshirt freshman who had never played in a college game, trotted out to the huddle. The third-string signal caller completed his only pass attempt for eight yards and led Wisconsin on a 12-play drive that ended at the UMass 1-yard-line as time expired during a 45-0 victory.
Afterward, Andersen called Phillips’ selflessness a “defining moment with this football team” and praised Phillips for being “a tremendous kid.”
“That was all Curt,” Andersen said. “That’s a pretty powerful thing for me anyway. I told the team right after. I think it affected our team in a very positive way.”
During the course of his career, Phillips had appeared in 11 games with five starts. He took over for Stave following an injury for the team’s final five games last season and helped lead the Badgers to a Big Ten championship victory against Nebraska and a Rose Bowl appearance.
Phillips and Stave were locked in a hotly contested battle to be the starting quarterback during spring and fall camp. And though Phillips began this season as the backup, he has not shown his disappointment outwardly with the team.
“That’s Curt just being a good team player and a really good leader,” Stave said. “He’s been in that situation before as the young guy. You know how important it is to get your first snaps out of the way when you’re a young quarterback. He’s practiced. He knows the drill as far as run game, how you work the clock. That’s something Bart had never got the chance to play in the game. Curt giving those reps to Bart shows the kind of guy he is.”
Added tight end Jacob Pedersen: “I think it speaks volumes about his leadership capabilities. He demonstrated them every single play last year. We all know he has it.”
Watt injured: Fullback Derek Watt left Saturday’s game during the third quarter and did not return after suffering a left hamstring injury while running down on a kickoff.
Watt limped to the sideline, where trainers immediately wrapped his leg in ice. Both he and Andersen expressed optimism about his status moving forward.
“I don’t think I’ll be out real long,” Watt said. “They have a great training staff in there. I’m going to be in there every day early on and see what we can do from there.”
Shelton shines: Badgers freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton made a diving interception of UMass quarterback Mike Wegzyn with 6:55 remaining in the third quarter. Shelton, the only true freshman on the first-team depth chart, finished with four tackles.
His interception was especially notable because Wisconsin did not record its first pick of last season until the sixth game against Illinois.
“I went into this game wanting an interception,” Shelton said. “My first varsity high school game I had an interception and that was my goal coming in now. I just wanted an interception in my first college game and having it felt pretty good. I was pretty excited and amped up and just extremely happy.”
Clement carries well: Badgers running back Corey Clement was the only other true freshman outside of Shelton to see significant playing time Saturday. And he certainly didn’t disappoint.
Clement entered in the second half and carried the ball 16 times for 101 yards with a 23-yard touchdown. He became the first true freshman at Wisconsin to rush for 100 yards in a season opener since NCAA allowed freshmen to play beginning in 1972.
“He’s one of those guys you think you made a nice play on defense, he hops up and has a three-and-a-half, four-yard gain,” Andersen said. “Those are the kind of backs that when I was a d-coordinator I couldn’t stand to deal with. Tough sledding. The challenge for him is going to be when you’re in position to throw the ball, you’ve got to protect. He’s working through that.”
Clement credited his older brother, Steven, for toughening him up as a kid and giving him an edge.
“It’s all about remembering where you’re from and how you actually got here,” Clement said. “As I progress through the year, just thanking strength coaches for helping me get to this point. College is a big deal. Got to take care of your body. Got to eat the right things. Just having the right mindset in practice.”
Spread cover: Wisconsin began the week as a 44.5-point favorite against UMass — the largest spread involving two FBS teams during Week 1. By kickoff, the line had moved to between 42.5 points at the MGM Mirage and 44.0 points at the Caesars-Hilton in Las Vegas. Clement’s 23-yard touchdown run with 13:30 remaining in the game helped Wisconsin cover both spreads.
Dating to the 2001 season, Wisconsin has beaten just three of its 47 nonconference regular season opponents by 45 points (65-0 against Temple in 2005, 70-3 against Austin Peay in 2010 and 59-10 against South Dakota in 2011).