MADISON – The biggest win of Alex Hornibrook's young career is already in the rear-view mirror. The film convinced him it needed to be.
Leading Wisconsin to a 24-point road win Saturday, Hornibrook threw for 195 yards on 16-for-26 passing and a touchdown in his first career start, good numbers that got the offense in rhythm but still showed him a lot of mistakes.
“For me there are a lot of throws that I could have done better,” Hornibrook said. “For the whole offense, on first and second down, if we can do a little better that will help us out.”
Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) went 7 of 16 on third downs Saturday. Of that group, nine were in situations where the Badgers faced third-and-8 or longer. Hornibrook managed to salvage drives by going 6-for-8 on those downs, moving the chains four times.
No.8 Wisconsin might not be as fortunate Saturday, as No.4 Michigan (4-0, 1-0) is the nation’s top third-down defense, holding its four opponents to only 6-for-50 (12 percent).
Part of the problem Saturday was a lack of a running threat. UW ran for 122 yards as a team and didn’t get much push on early downs. The Badgers ran the ball 19 times on first down and generated only 70 yards (3.7 yards per carry), which includes a 22-yard run by Corey Clement and 16-yard run by Dare Ogunbowale.
Passing wasn’t much better. Although Hornibrook completed a 17-yard pass to receiver Rob Wheelwright on his first passing attempt on first down, he threw incomplete passes on his final three attempts and took a six-yard sack.
“We’ve got to do better on the other downs to make sure we’re in a better situation on third,” Hornibrook said. “Obviously you’ll be in those situations and you’ve got to take advantage of them, but you can’t expect to do (convert) on every single (long third) down.”
Even so, going 6-for-6 on third-and-10 or longer isn’t a complete accident. Hornibrook said postgame Saturday that the Badgers had a strong game plan that could have success through the air. A large portion of that had to do with pregame film study, something he relishes.
“He put them in the perfect spot where it feels very routine,” receiver Jazz Peavy said, who made three of his catches on third down. “It feel like practice most of the time when they look that easy. I wouldn’t say (the catches) were tough at all.”
Seeing a lot of the looks on the field that he saw on tape in his pre-snap reads, Hornibrook believes he audibled only twice against the Spartans.
“I think that’s a big thing for a quarterback especially, just to spend a lot of time in the film room,” Hornibrook said. “That’s the biggest place where you make your improvements besides on the field, so you have to put a lot of time into that.”
Hornibrook has also done his best to be a natural thrower no matter which way he scrambles. In the last two weeks, Hornibrook has thrown the game-winning touchdown pass to Kyle Penniston against Georgia State and hit tight end Troy Fumagalli for big gains in the flat rolling to his right, making a challenging throw across his body look easy.
“Since I was young playing in camps, everything is designed for righties,” Hornibrook said. “You don’t want to be the guy says ‘I’ve got to flip the drill.’ You rather just do it yourself … Here we’re going both ways, doing both things, but there’s a lot of times I’m rolling to the right and feel comfortable with it.”
The comfort level for Hornibrook has been evident since arriving at virtually the same time as head coach Paul Chryst. Both said they felt an instant connection to one another when Chryst was the head coach at Pittsburgh and Hornibrook was a prep quarterback at Malvern Prep in Malvern, PA.
The bond between them was so strong that when Chryst left Pitt to take the Wisconsin job, Hornibrook – committed to the Panthers at the time – took a visit to UW’s campus during a dead period (no contact with the staff), switched his commitment and enrolled a few days later.
“It’s not all business with him,” Hornibrook said of Chryst. “He likes to joke around a little bit; he’s a loose guy. He’s the kind of guy who kind of just sells himself. He’s not going to show you everything we do or everything he does. If you like it, you like it.”
Seeing the similarities between him and Chryst, Hornibrook felt he’ll probably start to act like him the more he’s around him. Peavy said that’s already the case.
“He’s a character,” Peavy said, adding Hornibrook is always cracking jokes and making faces. “He’s got a great personality but he’s really serious. He’s a serious guy, as well. He puts in a lot of work, understands the position he’s in now and taken advantage of it.”
Same Old Underdog Story
Although knocking off two top-10 opponents away from home this season, Wisconsin has jumped from a preseason unranked team to the No.8 team in the country. Apparently that still doesn’t make believers out of the Las Vegas odds makers.
After beating then-No.5 LSU by two as a 13.5-point underdog and then-No.8 Michigan State by 24 as a 5.5-point underdog, Wisconsin will go into Saturday’s matchup at No.4 Michigan as a 10.5-point underdog (as of Tuesday’s afternoon’s betting line).
“I feel like we’ve been hearing that a lot,” Peavy said. “Everyone is always a favorite when they are playing us. I feel like that’s something we carry on our shoulders, a chip we carry on our shoulders. We just have to make sure we keep preparing for this game like we do every other game.”
Peavy added that he feels like people are always sleeping on the Wisconsin program, hard to do when only seven FBS teams are ranked ahead of them in the AP poll.
“We are ranked high,” Peavy said. “I feel like we are doing good, we are on a roll (and) it’s one of those things we’ve got to keep going.”