MADISON, Wis. — Bart Houston had no inkling his first game appearance as a college quarterback was approaching on Saturday afternoon. Wisconsin was pounding UMass, and that meant backup Curt Phillips would take the field to cap a 45-0 blowout victory.
Only Phillips, a sixth-year senior, never made his way off the sideline. Instead, he went to head coach Gary Andersen and suggested Houston, a redshirt freshman, be given an opportunity.
“I was very surprised,” Houston said following Tuesday’s practice. “Sitting there on the headset, I thought Curt was going to go in. All of a sudden I hear Andersen say, ‘Curt just talked to me, we’re about to put Bart in instead of Curt.’ My head was spinning. I’m like, ‘What?’ I thought I was in a dream. Somebody pinch me. It was real exciting. I did not expect it, but I prepared just as well.”
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The gesture was especially moving for Houston, who would help Wisconsin salt away the final 7 minutes, 30 seconds of the game on a 12-play drive that featured one pass — his first career completion on an 8-yarder to tight end Sam Arneson.
“I have the utmost respect for Curt,” Houston said. “Not many people in this nation would do that. It goes a long way. He’s thinking about the program because he’s a sixth-year guy. He should be starting in his mind. He’s been here the longest. He’s like 40 years old or something. He’s truly a program guy.”
Houston and Phillips have developed a close-knit relationship since Houston arrived on campus last year. Houston was a highly regarded prep standout at De La Salle High School in California. The four-star Scout.com recruit set school records for career passing yards and completions, surpassing Matt Gutierrez, who played three seasons in the NFL. In his career, Houston threw for 5,178 yards and 46 touchdowns.
But Houston couldn’t do much of any throwing when he came to Wisconsin after undergoing surgery on his right throwing shoulder. He spent most of his time in the training room or on the sideline in practice. Over the course of those months, the chemistry between he and Phillips grew.
“Curt really took care of me last year,” Houston said. “He was kind of like a big brother on and off the field. He was talking to me, taking care of me. I’m the kid with the broken wing, and I didn’t feel part of the team. He always kept me in it, kept me with it.”
This season, Houston is the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart. And when Phillips leaves the program, Houston will have to catch starter Joel Stave for playing time. Given that Stave, a redshirt sophomore, will have started nearly 20 games if he stays healthy this season, it’s entirely possible Houston could remain stuck behind Stave for the next two seasons. That would mean Houston’s only realistic opportunity for playing time would come in his senior season.
Considering Houston’s tremendous talent level, it’s enough to make one wonder whether he would contemplate the idea of transferring. Houston, for one, is adamantly opposed to the idea.
“I’m definitely here for the long haul,” Houston said. “I don’t know what other people are thinking, if they’re thinking about me transferring or anything. No, that ain’t going to happen. I love this place. I came to Wisconsin because of Wisconsin.”
Houston pledged his loyalty by noting his willingness to stay despite three offensive coordinators in the past three seasons. He was recruited by former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and former coach Bret Bielema. When he arrived on campus, there was a new offensive coordinator (Matt Canada), and this season there is a new coach (Andersen) and another new offensive coordinator (Andy Ludwig).
What has made this season easier, Houston said, was simply having the opportunity to practice with the team, which he wasn’t able to do last season.
“I was born to play football and this is the place to be,” he said. “It feels so much better just to come out here and be in my niche and do my thing.”
As for the matter of earning meaningful playing time, Houston is determined to provide Stave with a stern challenge. Houston said he would do whatever is in the best interests of the team. If that means running the scout team or signaling in plays from the sideline as he’s doing now, then he will oblige the coaching staff.
Of course, he is already contemplating what advantages he can use to unseat Stave as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback of the future.
“I’ve got a stronger rope,” Houston said. “I throw the ball on a rope a little bit better. You only get those like once a game. When you throw a 10-yard out, he can do that, too. But when it comes down to an 18-yard comeback, that’s where my strong set is. Throwing the ball on a line from the left hash all the way to the right sideline, that’s where I can prevail. Basically he’s got a strong arm, he can make those throws. I’ve got a strong arm, and I can make the throws. …
“I’m going to give Joel a run for his money every spring. Next spring, it’s going to start. It’s going to be a battle.”