Three quarters of brutal play left the University of Wisconsin football team in perilous territory against Georgia State University Saturday.
With just under six minutes to play in the third quarter, the No. 9 Badgers held a slim 6-3 lead after the Panthers put their first points on the board, courtesy of a 45-yard field goal from kicker Rogier ten Lohuis. It wasn’t until one redshirt quarterback Alex Hornibrook trotted on to the field that the Wisconsin offense finally showed signs of life.
The move was unexpected, considering UW starting quarterback Bart Houston’s performance was not exactly terrible. The fifth-year senior Houston threw 10-18 for 91 yards with no touchdowns — not a poor performance, or not so horrible that it would warrant a third-quarter replacement.
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So when Hornibrook subbed in for the lackluster Houston, it didn’t cause any immediate relief for Wisconsin fans. At least not until Hornibrook’s first pass.
Complete for 29 yards, Hornibrook’s beautiful spiral to a streaking Jazz Peavy drew a healthy roar from a previously silent crowd at Camp Randall. The pass gave hope to a nervous sea of red, one frantically coping with the possibility of a major upset. Hornibrook then followed up the Badgers’ first pass for over 20 yards since the first quarter in the only way he knows how.
The redshirt freshman dropped back and slung a 19-yard pass to George Rushing down to the Georgia State 21-yard line. Wisconsin was finally knocking on the door and ready to score its first touchdown, which came two plays later on a Dare Ogunbowale rush.
“I was hoping just that [putting Hornibrook in would cause a spark],” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. “It gave us a little something, and it wasn’t even Bart’s fault why were [in that situation] … I like the way [Hornibrook] has been preparing.”
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Despite being picked off on the next drive when Rushing tipped the pass into the hands of the Panthers defense, Hornibrook was as poised as ever, even with Georgia State now holding a 17-13 lead from touchdowns on consecutive drives.
He slung an 11-yard pass to favored target Rob Wheelwright, and when the Badgers were in desperate need of something big, Hornibrook delivered a 29-yard, arcing pass to tight-end Kyle Penniston to put the Badgers in the red zone.
Five plays later, his next pass went right back to Penniston — a one-yard play action pass for the score on third down. The Badgers had the 20-17 lead they so desired and added a Rafa Gaglianone field goal to it later to seal the win.
“There was a lot of small mistakes we made,” Hornibrook said. “Aside from that one interception, or converting on a few third downs, I think a big thing we need to work on is scoring touchdowns and not just settling on field goals.”
It wasn’t pretty, but Wisconsin got the win. An unsightly victory like this begs questions about the Badgers, but none more important than who should be UW’s starting quarterback.
Why is it that the second Hornibrook came in that Wisconsin’s offense finally opened up? Houston did not play poorly. Was it merely that the Badgers finally woke up midway through the third quarter? Does Hornibrook being in the huddle actually make a difference?
“No,” Ogunbowale said when asked if there was a difference in the huddle between the two quarterbacks. “They’re both commanding quarterbacks, both have a lot of confidence.”
From an outsider’s perspective, there’s no way of knowing what’s on the minds of players on the field when Hornibrook is taking snaps compared to Houston. In the stands, however, it was evident that at least today the team seemed to gain energy from Hornibrook’s presence.
Going into next weekend, a marquee matchup against Michigan State that is one of the biggest games Wisconsin has faced over the past few years.
The Badgers announced ahead of it that Hornibrook will in fact be the starter, so whether the spark against Georgia State was a coincidence or a true facet to his play is yet to be seen.
What has been seen though, is what Hornibrook can do in a game. Chryst has been happy with his young quarterback’s performance, but now thrust into the one of Wisconsin’s biggest games of the past few seasons for his first career start there’s one thing Hornibrook has that separates him.
“I’ve been impressed [with Hornibrook],” Chryst said. “I think [poise is] one of his characteristics that stuck out to me.”
Perhaps all it takes to deliver the big plays Hornibrook has, is a little poise. If he continues that trend, following Saturday’s game we could be starting the Alex Hornibrook-era at Wisconsin.