Paul Chryst didn’t have to make a decision at quarterback.
This season, Wisconsin had more offensive weapons that it was given credit. Corey Clement was the prized stallion, the guy the offense centered around for most of the season. But the Badgers had more than just one horse in the stable.
Behind Clement’s 1,304 yards and 14 TDs were Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw, serving as excellent complements in a loaded backfield. Running the football was Chryst’s first, second, and third choice in most situations. It’s not that surprising that Wisconsin had 60 more rushing attempts on the year than any other team in the B1G.
When the Badgers did opt to go to the air, they had pretty reliable targets in Jazz Peavy and Robert Wheelwright, both capable of making big plays. Troy Fumagalli emerged as a pretty good option at tight end, proving to be as punishing as any player at the position in the conference.
So, when the time came for Chryst to decide who would be under center, Bart Houston or Alex Hornibrook, he wasn’t exactly rolling the dice. Whoever he put in that position he was surrounding with exceptional talent.
Eventually Chryst gave the nod to the freshman, electing to go with Hornibrook as the starter, though Houston was used in certain situations in most games throughout the year.
Hornibrook’s first season was spent mostly as a pawn. His role was as a game-manager rather than a big-armed gunslinger. He ranked 13th in the B1G among starting quarterbacks in passing yardage and only threw 20 or more passes in three games on the year. He ended his first season with 1,243 yards, eight TDs and seven INTs.
Games against Michigan State, Michigan, and Ohio State – his first three games as the starter – he was asked to throw with a little more frequency. He completed 52 percent of his passes and had three TDs and five INTs. Against Michigan he had three picks. A week later he threw for 214 yards against Ohio State.
Since then, he’s been asked to throw sparingly.
The freshman never had that breakout game. He never even really looked like a starting B1G quarterback. But it worked, mostly because of the other pieces on the chess board. The Badgers claimed 10 wins and a B1G West title without major contributions from their starter.
Wisconsin only has that luxury for one more game. After the Cotton Bowl against Western Michigan, Hornibrook won’t have Clement or Ogunbowale behind him. Wheelwright won’t be an option in the passing game. Houston won’t be coming in for situations when Chryst thinks he’s a better option.
After Jan. 2, Hornibrook’s responsibilities start changing.
Hornibrook really didn’t have the essential skills required to lead a potent offense. At least, if he did, they were kept pretty well-hidden. The freshman was never really able to stretch the field through the air and had trouble when coverage was tight. He admitted that he had trouble getting rid of the football and took too many hits throughout the course of the season.
In the final five games of the regular season, he never eclipsed the 100-yard mark through the air. He still hasn’t produced multiple TD passes in a single game.
That was fine in 2016. It’s not going to work in 2017.
The Cotton Bowl might be more important to Hornibrook than any other player on the field in terms of performance. Even though he won the starting job early in the year, he’s still lacking that performance that proves definitively he can be the leader Chryst needs.
Hornibrook needs to take advantage of this opportunity. He needs to use the Cotton Bowl as a springboard into next season.
Chryst isn’t going to suddenly alter his game plan to allow Hornibrook to sling the ball all over the field, but he needs to loosen the strings on his conservatism. He needs to put some trust in his quarterback and give him the opportunity to have that breakthrough moment.
Especially while Clement and Ogunbowale are still available to bail him out, if necessary.
Western Michigan’s defense would be a pretty good barometer for Hornibrook and the Cotton Bowl is a large enough stage.
Stars are often born in these type of situations.
Clement wasn’t well-known until his 105-yard performance against Auburn in the 2014 Outback Bowl. After that, he catapulted to the top of the preseason watch lists for the Doak Walker Award and the Heisman Trophy.
Hornibrook probably isn’t going to have that much success. It’s unlikely he even gets the opportunity to have that type of breakout performance. But against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 30th nationally against the pass, grabbed 15 interceptions and tallied 26 sacks, he does have the chance to prove he can be more than a pawn in Wisconsin’s offense.
Unlike this season, Chryst is going to have some decisions to make at some key positions next year. And unlike this season, he’s going to be rolling the dice on a few guys.
Hornibrook doesn’t have to be one of those players.
The freshman has an opportunity to solidify his spot under center a few months in advance.