Resurrecting an offense in the nonconference finale and leading Wisconsin to a 24-point road win over a top-10 team in the conference opener, redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook showed a poise and accuracy that’s normally reserved for upperclassmen quarterbacks in his first career start, becoming the talk of the fan base overnight.
One week later it was a different story.
A swarming, aggressive defense under Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown overwhelmed the Wisconsin offense and got Hornibrook off his game in a 14-7 loss to the fourth-ranked Wolverines at Michigan Stadium.
Going against a defense that allowed only 147 passing yards per contest, Hornibrook’s inability to sustain a rhythm, while making crucial mistakes, left him going 9-for-25 passing for 88 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.
“A lot of it was we couldn’t really get any drives going, Hornibrook said of an offense that generated only 159 total yards, “and when we did there was opportunities that we should have taken advantage of - I should have taken advantage of - and we just couldn’t execute on them.”
Just like last week, Hornibrook said the Badgers (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) knew how Michigan would attack them, but Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst acknowledged it was a different set of circumstances facing this offense.
“I thought we were challenged differently, certainly than last week,” Chryst said. “I know there’s a couple of balls when you look back on this thing he’s going to want back - a couple I thought had a chance to may be a big hit for us or maybe swing the field for us. I think in looking at that, they did some good things, but there’s going to be a couple we’re going to look back and want those back.”
Things started out as a positive for the offense. On the opening drive Hornibrook led the offense to two third down conversions, including completing a 24-yard pass to senior Rob Wheelwright to push the ball into Michigan territory. It was a promising early development against a defense only allowing 12 percent of its opponents’ third-down conversions.
When finally presented with a red-zone opportunity in the third quarter, Hornibrook’s perfectly placed pass to senior running back Dare Ogunbowale on a wheel route went 17 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at seven.
That would be the most promising chances capitalized on. Wisconsin would finish 2-of-15 for the rest of the game on third downs, and the offense only moved past Michigan’s 40-yard line a total of three times in the game.
“I thought how he saw the field, I didn’t think there wasn’t anything there negatively necessarily, but I think it was just the finishing of some of the plays,” Chryst said.
In key situations Hornibrook misfired on wide open receivers and his three interceptions were a combination of overthrown and unwise decisions.
He lobbed the ball over the head of Wheelwright and was intercepted by cornerback Channing Stribling - his second of the game. Facing a fourth down in Wisconsin’s last attempt to move the chains, Hornibrook heaved a throw to junior George Rushing, but cornerback Jourdain Lewis made an acrobatic, one-handed interception to permanently end the Badgers’ offensive threat.
Possibly the most egregious inaccuracy wasn’t an interception, but an opportunity to take the lead late in the third quarter with just over two minutes left. Wide receiver Jazz Peavy was wide open after a Michigan defender fell down. The southpaw overshot his target for what could have been a 77-yard touchdown pass.
The Wolverines also put Hornibrook and the offensive line under duress, getting credit for three quarterback hurries, two sacks and making the young quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket.
“I think we gotta spin it to be positive, use it as motivation, for these next couple of weeks,” Hornibrook said. “There’s a ton of room that could be made to improve. In this bye week, we’re going to hone down on that and improve and it’s only looking forward from now.”
Despite the struggles, Wisconsin didn’t turn to senior Bart Houston at any point to give the offense a possible spark, a sign that Chryst trusts Hornibrook with the offense. With a bye week next before hosting No.2 Ohio State, Chryst is confident that Saturday’s game will yield growth for his offense.
“I think there’s some guys that really played well, but there’s something there for them to learn,” he said. “Myself, there’s something for me to learn in this one. I think every game presents a heck of a learning opportunity. I absolutely know, I feel confident saying this, I know Alex will learn from this one.”