Throughout the long, hot summer months, a quarterback battle unfolded inside the historic walls of Camp Randall Stadium. There was little one could do to escape the talk of who to start between Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston, and after Hornibrook’s performance on Saturday, it appears the conversation may now be more mottled than ever.
With the Badgers up 6-3 on an underwhelming Georgia State team, Hornibrook took the field with 5:54 remaining in the third quarter. The change came as a surprise to everyone watching, even the Big Ten Network broadcasters who didn't even notice Hornibrook had taken the field until it was already second down and a play had already been ran.
The first two plays from scrimmage for the freshman quarterback were typical Badger running plays. The first was a successful off-tackle run by another redshirt freshman, Bradrick Shaw, which was good for a four-yard gain and set the Badgers up for a manageable second and six.
The next play didn't go quite so well as redshirt senior running back Dare Ogunbowale lost the four yards Shaw had clawed for on the previous play.
Now third and 10, the 19-year-old quarterback faced his first critical test, a test that could have a huge impact on his and his team’s entire season.
The pressure situation didn't shake the young gun.
“That's his whole idea. He’s real poised,” senior wide receiver Rob Wheelwright said.
“Even during practice and the whole fall and summertime with him battling, he was very poised during that whole situation.”
The cool-headed Hornibrook lined up in the shotgun formation with Ogunbowale in the backfield to his right, two receivers spread wide and junior wide receiver Jazz Peavy in the slot. Hornibrook took the snap and looked left the whole way, with his eyes on Peavy. Peavy ran a 15-yard out, and Hornibrook floated a pass in over the defender, allowing Peavy to run after the catch for a big 29-yard gain on third down.
“Hornibrook maybe had a little more energy coming back in,” offensive lineman Benzschawel said.
The piano on the back of the Wisconsin offense had been lifted. The crowd inside the Badgers’ stadium ignited, and the Badgers offense was on the move. It was now first and 10, and all the way up in the press box, after just three plays, you could feel the dramatic change in energy.
“When things aren’t going our way, it’s nice to have a breath of fresh air,” Benzschawel said.
After the big gain, the Badgers found themselves at the Panthers 40-yard line. The effects of the previous play could already be seen in the defensive formation, with the safety allowing 15-yards of cushion off the line of scrimmage, five more yards than the preceding play.
The larger buffer didn't help.
The Georgia State defense showed blitz, but dropped a man into coverage, rushing only four, allowing Hornibrook time to set his feet. He delivered a strike to junior wide receiver
George Rushing, who had found the soft spot in the middle of the defense on a precise 15-yard in.
“Hornibrook did a good job of calling the plays and seeming poised, and when you see that your quarterback is poised and he’s calm it helps you out,” Wheelwright said. “He did a very good job with that.”
The defense was lost. Two quick Ogunbowale carries later, the Badgers scored their first touchdown of the day. While Ogunbowale may have broken the plane, Hornibrook changed the entire complexion of the Wisconsin offense.
“To see him go out there and make some plays, nothing is surprising,” Wheelwright said.