Clement and Ogunbowale can lead Wisconsin to B1G West crown, but Badgers will need Hornibrook soon
Wisconsin can run.
Anyone out there interested in disputing that? Didn’t think so.
The Badgers haven’t really had much difficulty rushing the football this year. With Corey Clement in the backfield and the steady rise of backup Dare Ogunbowale, Paul Chryst has been able to cling to that smash-mouth style that has been the identity of Wisconsin for as long as anyone can remember.
And – to no surprise – there was no trouble running the football against Illinois on Saturday, either. Both Clement and Ogunbowale rushed for over 100 yards and the Badgers piled up 363 for the afternoon as they pummeled the Illini 48-3. It was a season-high for Wisconsin in terms of rushing yardage.
That’s the good news.
The bad news?
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook finished the game completing seven-of-12 passes for 85 yards. OK, maybe it’s not the worst news in the world, but it’s definitely something worth addressing.
Because if the Badgers hope to somehow win the B1G in a rematch with either Michigan or Ohio State, the play under center is going to have to be a lot more crisp than it has been this season. And there’s not much time left to fix it.
Just two games remain on the schedule – a trip to Purdue before coming home to close out the year with Minnesota.
Clement, Ogunbowale and one of the nation’s best defenses should be enough for the Badgers to get to 10-2 on the year and make a trip to Indianapolis in a few weeks.
Purdue is atrocious at defending the run and is one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country. Hornibrook wouldn’t have to throw a pass and the Badgers would coast to a three-touchdown victory.
Minnesota is a little tougher. The Gophers do have an excellent run defense – ranking third in the B1G currently – but they have been inconsistent offensively. While this game tends to be more entertaining than it really should each year, Wisconsin’s defense will certainly created enough problems for Tracy Claeys to retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe for another season and lock up another division crown.
The tough part comes when the regular season concludes. Though the Badgers rode the coattails of a pair of talented running backs and a top-notch defense, Clement, Ogunbowale and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox are going to need a bit more help.
Enter the freshman quarterback.
Hornibrook has had a nice rookie season considering the circumstances. He was in the midst of a quarterback battle, was forced into the starting role a few games into the season and has had to lineup across from some of the conference’s top defense without much of a break. Even through that, he’s completing passes at a 59 percent clip, has thrown for over 1,100 yards and has six TDs and seven INTs.
Nothing great but nothing egregious, either. He’s protected the football and has allowed his running backs and offensive line to carry most of the load. His number has been called in particular situations to keep defenses guessing and – for the most part – he’s answered that call.
But in a few weeks he’s going to be more than just a role player. Instead of handing the ball off and watching his running back do the brunt of the work, Hornibrook is going to have to be a factor.
Don’t believe me?
Let’s flashback to 2014, when Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon dominated defenses all season long, racking up 2,587 yards for the season. Clement – a sophomore – totaled 949 in backup work. The Badgers were by far the best rushing team in the country.
And then they ran into Ohio State in the B1G title game. The Buckeyes smacked around the Badgers and completely took away the running game. They earned just 71 yards and 37 attempts.
Ohio State won 59-0.
The other problem in that game?
Quarterback play. Joel Stave completed just 17-of-43 passes and threw three interceptions in the game. Wisconsin had struggled all season with the air strike and the Buckeyes bottled up Gordon and forced the Badgers to win by throwing the football. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Something similar could happen again this year in Indianapolis if the Badgers aren’t more effective through the air.
In the three biggest games for Hornibrook this season, he hasn’t fared well. Against Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska, the freshman completed just 51 percent of his passes and tossed six INTs with just three TDs.
That’s not going to work. Not in Indianapolis in December.
Paul Chryst has two games to prepare his quarterback for a B1G title game, and it’s something he should take full advantage of.
Hornibrook doesn’t need to be throwing 35 or 40 passes per game in the next two weeks. Wisconsin doesn’t need to adopt a pass-heavy scheme that you’d commonly see from Mike Leach or another PAC-12 squad. But he’s also going to need to pass the ball more than 12 times in a game. If nothing else, to at least get comfortable with more reps.
Against Illinois, Hornibrook could’ve been utilized a lot better. It could’ve been a glorified practice session for a an up-and-coming quarterback as the Badgers close in on another division title and prepare for a rematch with the Buckeyes or the Wolverines. This was a wasted opportunity.
He should be throwing more next week against Purdue. The freshman can build some confidence heading into the season finale and the B1G title game. It can give the coaching staff an idea of when to appropriately use their guy under center, especially since the scheming will change in a rematch situation.
Wisconsin’s identity has always been as a run-first team. This season has been no different. Clement and Ogunbowale have lived up to the expectation and have kept the Badgers in a good position despite two losses on the year.
Soon they’re going to need some help, though.
If Hornibrook is throwing 12 passes per game, the Badgers could be laughed out of Lucas Oil Stadium for the second time in three seasons.