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Two-headed Wisconsin offense doesn’t faze Western

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Dallas — Cotton Bowl preparation remains a guessing game for Western Michigan’s defense, which has been preparing for two Wisconsin quarterbacks, freshman Alex Hornibrook and senior Bart Houston.

The duo has split time much of the season, and coach Paul Chryst said this week he remains undecided on who will start Monday at AT&T Stadium.

The most likely scenario is that both will see significant playing time.

The good news for Western Michigan: The Broncos are used to this. After all, they had to prepare for two Ohio quarterbacks, also a freshman and a senior, leading into the Mid-American Conference championship game.

“You know, they run similar offenses when they’re in there,” junior linebacker Robert Spillane said. “We’re just really focused on understanding what plays they’re going to run.

“They have a really brutal running attack, so we’ve been preparing for that the most.”

Wisconsin averages more than 200 rushing yards, with 5-foot-11, 227-pound senior Corey Clement — who’s built like one of Wisconsin’s all-time greats, Ron Dayne — shouldering the loud.

Clement has rushed for 1,304 yards and 14 touchdowns, including monster games in narrow losses to Ohio State (164 yards) and Penn State in the Big Ten championship game (164 yards).

“No. 6 (Clement) is a man,” WMU defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham said. “He’s put together.”

But Clement is complemented nicely, by senior Dare Ogunbowale (484 yards) and freshman Bradrick Shaw (457 yards), each of whom averages more than 5 yards per carry.

You can see why Western Michigan’s defense is more concerned with the rushing attack than necessarily who will start at quarterback.

Houston began the season as the starter and led Wisconsin to a comeback win over LSU in the opener, but was replaced late in the third game with the Badgers trailing Georgia State. Hornibrook came in and won the game, and the following week he made his first career start, winning at Michigan State.

Hornibrook suffered a head injury in the regular-season finale against Minnesota, and Houston was tapped to start the Big Ten championship game. He played the whole game.

“I’ve got a ton of appreciation for those two,” Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “They’ve made those things work and those relationships.

“The only way you can do that (play two QBs) is if you’ve got two guys who truly love the team and respect each other. So it’s good.”

Hornibrook and Houston are both 6-foot-4. The biggest difference between them is that Hornibrook throws left-handed.

The freshman played in 11 games, completing 58.1 percent of his passes for 1,243 yards and eight touchdowns, with seven interceptions. The senior completed 65.9 percent for 1,086 yards and five touchdowns, to go with three interceptions.

While the Badgers are known more for their running game, they’ve got some deep threats, too.

“We haven’t slept on the passing threat,” freshman safety Justin Tranquill said. “They’re definitely talented in both departments.”

Switch play

Darius Phillips, of Detroit Robichaud, was recruited to Western Michigan to play wide receiver.

As a freshman, coach P.J. Fleck approached him and asked him to give defense a try. Phillips was reluctant, and it didn’t work, so he stayed on offense.

Fleck, again, asked him to give it a shot as a sophomore, and this time it stuck.

Phillips is happy and has no desire to return to offense. Why would he? He catches enough balls on defense, with five interceptions last season, and four this season.

So, when did Phillips finally get excited about the switch?

“I would say the second practice of spring ball (before sophomore season),” Phillips said. “I caught an interception on a screen play, and after that, I loved it.”

Phillips scored five touchdowns this season, three on interception returns, one on a kickoff return, and another on a punt return.

We’ve got highlights

Western Michigan and Wisconsin aren’t overly familiar with each other, outside of what they’ve been watching on film the last several weeks.

But they have three common opponents — not that those tell much of a story either. Wisconsin beat Akron 54-10, and Western Michigan beat Akron 41-0; Wisconsin beat Northwestern 21-7, and Western Michigan defeated it 22-21; and Wisconsin beat Illinois 48-3, and Western Michigan won 34-10.

Still, Houston, Wisconsin’s senior quarterback, had at least a little knowledge of Western Michigan, dating to earlier in the season. He became well aware of Corey Davis.

“Whenever I get home late from watching film and you turn on ESPN,” said Houston, “there’s another big play for a Western Michigan wide receiver.

“Now it’s here, so it’s kind of cool.”

Size matters

Wisconsin’s size — everyone seems to be 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds or so, especially on the lines — worries the Western Michigan coaches.

“It’s like fighting your little brother and (big brother) can hold at you at arm’s length and keep you at bay and you can’t even get in there to fight with him,” Pinkham said. “The size thing.”

Said senior linebacker Keion Adams: “We haven’t necessarily seen an offensive line and a team, as far as how big and how strong they are. We’re gonna have to come out and play with technique.

Extra points

Tough timing. It’s the biggest weekend in WMU football history, and longtime athletic director Kathy Beauregard is dealing with bronchitis in Dallas.

At least she’s keeping her trademark sense of humor.

“No voice yet,” she said. “Just a squeaky tweet.”

... More interesting timing: When Fleck called Pinkham four years ago to offer him the coordinator job, Pinkham and his wife had just closed on a house in North Carolina three days earlier.

Pinkham hung up the phone and told his wife, “Well, I’ve got some news.”

With interest rates low, it was worth it to keep the house, which he still owns and rents out.

... Wisconsin offensive lineman Michael Deiter on WMU being one of two unbeaten teams remaining: “That is not an easy thing to do. I don’t care who you’re playing, that’s tough.”

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @tonypaul1984