It’s almost humorous to think we had no clue who would be starting under center for Penn State or Wisconsin just a few months ago.

Tommy Stevens or Trace McSorley? Bart Houston or Alex Hornibrook? None had any real experience but all four were vying for starting bids. And all four were trying to replace seasoned vets. Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg opted out of his senior season and declared for the NFL Draft. Wisconsin’s Joel Stave had graduated.

Big shoes were left at both programs. And whoever was going to fill them was going to have to learn on the fly.

Penn State’s battle was determined first, with McSorley being announced as the starter by James Franklin a week prior to the team’s season-opening contest against Kent State.

In Madison, Paul Chryst went with Houston, the senior, to start the season, wanting more evidence that Hornibrook could handle the job. The freshman was finally given the nod prior to Wisconsin’s thought-to-be heavyweight bout with Michigan State.

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Hornibrook’s first start was an impressive one. He completed 16-of-26 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown as the Badgers cruised to a 30-6 win over the reigning B1G champs. The keys were never turned back over to Houston.

Once the quarterback spots were locked up, Penn State and Wisconsin each went on to win 1o games, claim a division crown and will now meet head-to-head in Indianapolis for a B1G title. No other program in college football has had that much success this season with a fresh face under center:


On the surface, the seasons for a pair of young gunslingers looks fairly comparable.

That’s really where the similarities end. McSorley and Hornibrook got their teams in this position in very different roles. One is responsible for igniting some offensive flare, the other has been tasked with simply managing the game.

McSorley has been dubbed as a do-it-all threat for the Nittany Lions and has inherited more responsibility than his Wisconsin counterpart. He’s become an integral aspect of Penn State’s offense. Defenses have had to account for his big arm and his quick legs.

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In such a short period of time, McSorley has developed into the B1G’s third-best passer, throwing for 2,976 yards and 21 TDs this season. Hackenberg’s best season at Penn State -2014 – ended with 2,977 yards through the air.

The sophomore has been relied throws like this; a 19-yard bullet to Saeed Blacknall in the back of the end zone against Iowa.

Hornibrook isn’t making those same type of throws in Madison.

Instead, Wisconsin has entrusted its freshman to hand the ball of to Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale or Bradrick Shaw 45 to 55 times per game and dropping back sparingly. Hornibrook hasn’t thrown for over 100 yards in a single game since an Oct. 22 meeting against Iowa. Though he left injured in the second quarter against Minnesota, he’s only passed for 366 yards over the past five weeks.

That role isn’t quite as hands-on as McSorley, but it has been just as effective.

Wisconsin hasn’t needed Hornibrook in the same capacity that Penn State has needed McSorley.

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Despite losing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, the Badgers defense is just as good, if not better, than it was last season. That unit  is allowing just 13.7 points per game on the year, a total that ranks second among B1G defenses. That stifling defense allows Wisconsin to win with low point totals and helps keep that run-first mindset a factor throughout the course of a game.

And then there’s the added benefit of a pretty good backfield, too. Clement was conference’s second-best rusher this season, averaging 103.6 yards per game.

Nov 12, 2016; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook (12) hands the football to running back Corey Clement (6) during the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin won 48-3. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State has a pretty good defense, too, and Saquon Barkley wasn’t far behind Clement in the yards per game category. But the Nittany Lions’ offense line has been battered and bruised this season, forcing the offense to get more creative with its play-calling. McSorley’s ability to roll outside the pocket and throw accurately on the run has helped overcome some of the issues that have faced this team in the Franklin era.

Thanks to his mobility, McSorley has also racked up 372 yards and seven TDs on the ground this season. The only time Hornibrook has been on the move is to avoid sacks, which he hasn’t done particularly well. He’s credited with -82 rushing yards and hasn’t sniffed the end zone with his legs.

The one aspect that you can compare these two quarterbacks, and it’s arguably the most important, is turnovers.

Both McSorley and Hornibrook have done an excellent job at keeping the ball away from secondary units this season and have limited their number of interceptions – pretty impressive accomplishments for a pair of rookie starters. McSorley has thrown five picks this year and Hornibrook has seven, though if you omit three against Michigan, the freshman has only tossed four in eight games.

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Now, the two quarterbacks with very different seasons but very similar outcomes are set to face each other in Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday. And it’s a matchup that many believe will boil down to Penn State’s offense and Wisconsin’s defense.

While that might be true, how each quarterback plays this weekend, in their own specific way, is going to be really important. McSorley’s going to have to make some plays and Hornibrook will have to keep the defense guessing.

At the end of the night on Saturday, one of them is going to be a B1G champion and the other will not.

That’s just going to be another difference between the two first-time starters this season.