Mondays with Rasty: Hornibrook's poise in the pocket makes Wisconsin a legitimate contender

Alex Hornibrook hopes to lead Wisconsin past Michigan Saturday in only his second career start. 

Image By: Gage Meyer

Are you a Wisconsin fan who forgot what it’s like to have a quarterback who can step up and make a throw when the team needs it on third down? Fear not, your savior is here and his name is Alex Hornibrook.

In the first start of his collegiate career, Hornibrook looked calm, cool and collected, going 16-for-26 with 195 yards, one touchdown and one interception in the Badgers’ 30-6 steamrolling of No. 8 Michigan State. Those numbers aren’t exactly the gaudiest you’ll ever see, but he looked solid in a hostile road environment. Not only that, but he didn’t have much of a running game to help him.

Wisconsin rushed for only 122 yards on 41 carries, a paltry 3.0 yards per carry. The Spartans were committed to stifling UW’s rushing attack and were largely successful in that endeavor. That obviously meant Hornibrook had to be sharp for the Badgers to move the ball with consistency on offense.

And he was able to do just that, with his most impressive work coming on third down.

Hornibrook went 9-for-12 for 136 yards and six first downs in third-down situations, including going 6-for-6 with four first downs when Wisconsin was faced with third and 10 or longer. To be able to move the chains with that kind of consistency and keep drives alive was huge for the Badgers, and a ton of the credit for that goes to their redshirt freshman quarterback.

With Joel Stave and Bart Houston under center, there often wasn’t much confidence that they could get first downs through the air when Wisconsin needed them to. On Saturday, Hornibrook was poised in the pocket in those same situations. He’ll need to continue that trend next week, as the Badgers take on a Michigan defense that has only allowed six third-down conversions in 50 attempts (12 percent success rate) this season, the best mark among all FBS teams.

The Wisconsin offense was also decidedly better in the red zone with Hornibrook under center. Prior to Saturday’s game, the Badgers had only scored touchdowns on 53.3 percent of their red zone trips (eight-for-15). Against Michigan State, they found the end zone all three times they made it to the red zone, and are a perfect seven-for-seven in converting red zone trips to touchdowns with Hornibrook at quarterback this season.

Hornibrook wasn’t perfect—a couple of poor passes and a bad fumble in the first half—but it was still an inspired performance that we haven’t often seen from Wisconsin quarterbacks in recent years. Simply put, he adds a whole different dynamic to the UW offense that has been missing for quite some time.

Of course, Hornibrook alone wasn’t responsible for the resounding victory. Major props have to be given to Wisconsin’s defense, which forced four turnovers (three interceptions and a fumble). The scoop and score from redshirt senior safety Leo Musso in particular was a pivotal moment in the game.

It came early in the third quarter after Michigan State had just forced a three and out. Trailing 13-6, the Spartans had an opportunity to march down the field and tie things up after a rough first half. But Jack Cichy jarred the ball loose from Michigan State running back L.J. Scott, which Musso scooped up and took back to the house for a 66-yard touchdown. Whatever hope remained among the Spartan Stadium crowd quickly dissipated and Michigan State never really threatened to make it a game again the rest of the way.

Now, the Badgers sit at 4-0 with two wins over Top Ten teams in the same season for the first time since 1962. A season that began with fears of a daunting schedule have given way to optimism, driven by a redshirt freshman quarterback and an already stout defense that has added a propensity for takeaways to its arsenal. The next two games against Michigan and Ohio State loom large and will be tougher tests than anything Wisconsin has faced thus far this year. But for now, the Badgers have their sights set on a Big Ten West title, and possibly even more.

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