Mondays with Rasty: Starting Hornibrook the right move

Redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook will reportedly get the start in East Lansing Saturday. 

Image By: Gage Meyer

There’s nothing that gets the blood pumping quite like a full-fledged quarterback controversy as your team is about to enter the gauntlet in conference play.

But after an extremely ugly win over Georgia State, that’s exactly where the Badgers find themselves as they prepare to travel to East Lansing to take on No. 8 Michigan State in their Big Ten opener.

While Wisconsin did move to 3-0 for the first time in five years Saturday afternoon, the Badgers did come dangerously close to seeing their 37-game, home winning streak against nonconference opponents snapped — a 23-5 loss to UNLV in 2003 is the last time it happened, by the Panthers.

First, let’s start with the bad in Wisconsin’s win over Georgia State (and there’s plenty to choose from).

Most notably is the fact that starting quarterback Bart Houston was benched in the third quarter in favor of redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. Regardless of your feelings toward Houston as a signal caller and whether or not you thought Hornibrook should have been under center all along, it’s never a good sign when your team’s starting quarterback gets the hook in the middle of the game. It’s an even worse sign when that game is against an 0-2 opponent from the Sun Belt. But the UW offense was almost completely stagnant Saturday, and head coach Paul Chryst wisely realized that he needed to do something to try and give it a jumpstart.

As he has in each of his starts this season, Houston was OK, but rather unspectacular against Georgia State. He completed 10 of his 18 passes on the day for 91 yards, but still didn’t look all that comfortable in the pocket and made a few questionable passes. That’s not to say Wisconsin’s dreadful performance can solely be pinned on Houston, because there is plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the ball.

On defense, Wisconsin was uncharacteristically sloppy throughout most of the afternoon. UW pass rushers couldn’t get to Georgia State quarterback Conner Manning before he got quick passes off underneath, as well as several deep balls that kept the defense on its heels. And I’m sure defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was none too pleased with the number of missed tackles on the day.

Things weren’t much better on offense. Wisconsin receivers had trouble getting open consistently against single coverage. Freshman tight end Kyle Penniston dropped passes on consecutive plays to kill a potential scoring drive late in the first half (though he later atoned for his sins with a game-winning touchdown catch). Redshirt freshman running back Bradrick Shaw lost a fumble on third and goal from the Georgia State 1-yard line. Junior kicker Rafael Gaglianone missed a chip shot field from 30 yards out to end the second quarter. If Gaglianone had hit that field goal and Shaw had held onto the ball and made the plunge into the end zone, the Badgers could have just as easily taken a 16-0 lead into the locker room at the half. Far from great, but it’s hard to imagine Chryst taking Houston out of the game in that scenario.

But that’s just a hypothetical. The fact of the matter is that a field goal from Rogier ten Lohuis left Wisconsin clinging to a three-point lead late in the third quarter with a sputtering offense, and Chryst realizing something had to change.

Out trotted Hornibrook to take his place under center, and it didn’t take long for him to have an impact. The Badgers immediately marched down the field on a six-play, 69-yard touchdown drive. That drive included a huge 29-yard pass from Hornibrook to Jazz Peavy on third and 10 to keep it alive. Georgia State did respond with a touchdown of its own and then picked off Hornibrook on the ensuing possession — though that pass went right through the hands of George Rushing before being intercepted — leading to a go-ahead touchdown.

But even with the Camp Randall crowd left in stunned silence with the Badgers trailing 17-13, Hornibrook and the offense calmly responded after a long kickoff return, from Dare Ogunbowale, set them up nicely. A goal-line touchdown pass from Hornibrook to Penniston on third down capped off an eight-play, 59-yard touchdown drive. The freshman-to-freshman connection gave Wisconsin the lead back, the defense forced consecutive three-and-outs and the Badgers avoided total embarrassment.

It should be noted that starting running back Corey Clement sat out as a precautionary measure following his left ankle injury against Akron. In addition, backup running back Taiwan Deal (right leg) and tight end Troy Fumagalli (right leg) both were knocked out of the game early. That undoubtedly played some role in Wisconsin’s lackluster showing, but it would be foolish to chalk up the performance entirely to injuries.

The offense still squandered excellent field position time and time again, settling for field goals and sometimes no points at all. And that’s precisely why Chryst should — and according to reports from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus, he will — be going with Hornibrook as his starter next week.

The offense looked revitalized with Hornibrook under center and he looked poised, hitting windows when they opened up in ways that we haven’t seen Houston do so far this season. There’s no guarantee that he can cure all that ails Wisconsin’s offense, and the small sample size we’ve seen from him has come against inferior competition. Plus, there’s surely a part of Chryst that wants to reward Houston for his loyalty to the program in waiting five years for his opportunity. But with the meat grinder that awaits the Badgers, he need to have his best quarterback out on the field if they’re going to get through this stretch and still have a shot at contending in the Big Ten West.

Given what we’ve seen from the two men that have taken snaps under center this year for Wisconsin, it’s pretty clear that guy is Alex Hornibrook.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Cardinal.