Alex Hornibrook isn’t a stranger to big moments. He’s experienced plenty of the high-pressure situations throughout his three-year career at Wisconsin.
Seven ranked opponents, the B1G Championship Game and the Orange Bowl. Those are the bona fides the junior quarterback brings to the national spotlight on Saturday night when the 15th-ranked Badgers step inside the walls of the Big House to take on No. 12 Michigan.
In several of those games, Hornibrook’s primary responsibilities included handing the ball to Jonathan Taylor and playing a clean 60 minutes. Minimize turnovers and allow the superstar running back to go to work. That was it.
Hornibrook’s role is going to change this weekend. At least that’s what needs to happen for Wisconsin to slay the Wolverines on their home turf and allow the bubble full of College Football Playoff hopes to float around a little longer.
At the risk of sounding too cliché, this might be the most important regular season game of the junior quarterback’s career. Not only because of the magnitude and importance of Saturday night’s outcome, but also the amount of production the Badgers will need from him.
Wisconsin isn’t going to be able to rely on its rushing attack, which ranks as the fourth-best in the nation with a 287 yards per game average. Not against Don Brown’s defense, which includes names like Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary and Devin Bush, among others. Paul Chryst is going to have to part ways with his “three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality, at least to a degree.
Hand the ball off 45-plus times on Saturday, and that bubble of hope is going to pop.
For the Badgers to be effective offensively against one of the nation’s top defensive units, they need something working through the air. Much like a thespian walking on the Broadway stage for the first time, Hornibrook needs to deliver the performance of a lifetime.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that he needs to put up Dwayne Haskins-like numbers, by the way. But it does mean that he’s going to have to be much better than he’s been against Michigan in the past. In his previous two meetings with the Wolverines’ defense, Hornibrook has completed 40 percent of his throws for 231 yards with just two touchdowns and four interceptions. The last time he was in Ann Arbor — 2016 as a freshman — he was just 9-of-25 for 88 yards and threw three picks.
Probably safe to say those numbers won’t cut it this year.
In a lot of ways, the requirements are similar to what Hornibrook has been asked to do through most of his career in Madison: find playmakers and protect the football. The difference this week, though, is that Wisconsin has to be able to stretch the field in some way, shape or form.
It’s been an issue early this season.
After five games, Wisconsin has just four passing plays that have netted 30-yards or more, one of the lowest totals in college football. It’s one of only three B1G offenses that hasn’t completed a pass of 40-plus yards this season — the other two are Illinois and Rutgers.
Throwing the football hasn’t been much of a priority for the Badgers either, not that they’ve needed it. Hornibrook ranks 12th in the B1G in passing attempts (114) and 10th in yards per game through the air (192.6).
Wisconsin’s offensive issues, particularly against top-tier teams, has been predictability. It’s been satisfied with pushing around defenses in the trenches and handing the ball to Taylor. Most times, that works. The Badgers haven’t needed a deep passing attack or the ability to stretch the field. It’s been dependent on its ability to shove the football down an opponent’s throat.
Michigan’s defense thrives on the predictable, especially against the run.
The Wolverines haven’t allowed a single running back to eclipse the 100-yard mark this year. Even more impressive, the defense is allowing just 96.5 yards per game on the ground through six games. Of the 579 yards Michigan has surrendered, 355 have come with the Maize-and-Blue leading by at least two touchdowns, and 240 have come in the fourth quarter.
Translation: most of the yardage Michigan has allowed has come in garbage time.
Hornibrook’s challenge on Saturday isn’t to throw for 400 yards and five touchdowns. It’s to keep Michigan’s defense on its toes and allow Taylor and the offensive line some breathing room.
Hornibrook has already done it once this season. In Wisconsin’s B1G opener against Iowa, he completed 17-of-22 passes for 205 yards and three touchdowns. He delivered in a clutch moment, throwing a 17-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Taylor for a game-winning score. It capped a 10-play, 88-yard drive in which Hornibrook went 5-for-5 for 67 yards and a touchdown.
Iowa’s defense was pretty good, too.
That’s the kind of outing the Badgers need from their veteran quarterback. Hitting on a few deep strikes wouldn’t hurt, either. Saturday is one of the few nights Wisconsin’s passing attack can help set up the run game. And it would put Wisconsin in great position to add a crucial road victory to its resumé and remain undefeated in B1G play.
Hornibrook has played in enough big moments throughout his career. The stage in Ann Arbor isn’t too big and the spotlight isn’t too bright for the junior who’s experienced his fair share of high-pressure situations. But this is his first lead role on Broadway. And everyone will be watching to see if he delivers the performance of his career.
Lights, camera, action.