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Alex Hornibrook provides spark to stagnant offense in Wisconsin’s win

The redshirt freshman comes up big in a critical time.

NCAA Football: Georgia State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON — A win’s a win, but it wasn’t pretty on Saturday.

With the No. 9/No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers (3-0) clinging to a three-point lead with only six points on the board, head coach Paul Chryst made the decision in the third quarter to bring in redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook in place of starter Bart Houston.

“I was hoping just to try to get a little something going,” head coach Paul Chryst said when asked if the quarterback change would provide a spark.

The move may generate conversations heading into the Badgers’ conference opener against Michigan State, but Hornibrook led Wisconsin’s offense to 17 points and three critical second-half scoring drives in their 23-17 win over Georgia State at Camp Randall Stadium.

“It was kind of the same mindset as last week,” said Hornibrook, who finished 8-of-12 for 122 yards with a touchdown and an interception. “I was ready to go when they told me to go in, but I didn’t have any expectations.”

After Georgia State kicker Rogier ten Lohuis converted a 45-yard field goal, Hornibrook drove the Wisconsin offense 69 yards in six plays. On a 3rd-and-10 from UW’s 31, the southpaw connected with redshirt junior Jazz Peavy for a 29-yard gain for a first down. It was a key play, as Wisconsin was 3-of-9 in third down conversions until Hornibrook took over the offense.

He then found junior George Rushing for 19 yards immediately thereafter to move the chains again. Two plays later, senior Dare Ogunbowale ran it in for Wisconsin’s first touchdown of the game and a 13-3 game.

“It was good to get some momentum,” Hornibrook said. “The crowd got into it after that drive. For the players, we got some life on our sideline, too. That was a good drive.”

Georgia State’s offense provided challenges to Wisconsin’s defense—in particular, its secondary without lead nickelback Natrell Jamerson—allowing three passing plays of over 35 yards.

After Wisconsin’s first touchdown drive, the Panthers pounced back, as quarterback Conner Manning connected with Glenn Smith on a 40-yard gain. Manning was 3-for-3 on that series, which ended with a Robert Davis 13-yard touchdown reception, making it a 13-10 game.

Wisconsin marched 30 yards down the field into Panthers’ territory again. Unfortunately, the offense would sputter with a pass tipped up in the air by Rushing and intercepted by cornerback Chandon Sullivan.

“I wasn’t too worried about that one,” Hornibrook said. “I told George not to worry about it, and I was going to come to him again if we ran that same play. It wasn’t something that I felt they got us on that play. It was just some small mistake we made, and I felt confident in the looks and everything we were doing, so I was ready to go on the next drive.”

Georgia State’s offense again struck in the passing game, as Manning found Smith once again—this time for a 60-yard gain as Badger defenders missed the junior running back. One play later, Kyler Neal took it in from nine yards to give the Panthers their first lead of the day at 17-13.

“They were able to get some really explosive plays off, so hats off to those guys,” senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton said. “They’re a really good team. We kind of needed a performance like this, as far as having to deal with adversity.”

Though the 79,000-plus fans were quiet after that touchdown, Ogunbowale jump-started the momentum back in Wisconsin’s favor with a 41-yard kickoff return. Hornibrook completed all three of his passes that ensuing series for 40 yards, including two to redshirt freshman Kyle Penniston. The second reception resulted in the tight end’s first collegiate touchdown and a 20-17 lead.

For Penniston, it was atonement for two consecutive drops inside the Georgia State 40-yard line earlier in the game that stalled a potentially promising drive.

“I think I had a lot of jitters going in the first half,” Penniston said. “I think I came to the locker room at half and I had a lot of older guys supporting me and just kind of saying, ‘just take a deep breath, act like it’s practice, just pretend like no one’s here.’ That helped out a lot.”

“I told Kyle right after he dropped the two passes, not to worry about it,” Hornibrook said. “We were going to come back to him, so that’s kind of the mindset to me not to let a play before impact the next one.”

Wisconsin dominated in the first half in terms of total yards (201 to 86) and time of possession (18:48 to 11:12), but five drives yielded that small 6-0 lead. Their first two drives ended in field goals by junior kicker Rafael Gaglianone of 41 and 28 yards, but the Badgers only converted two-of-seven third down attempts.

Wisconsin was also without its top two tailbacks in Corey Clement (left ankle) and Taiwan Deal (right leg), the latter of which was suffered on UW’s first drive. Tight end Troy Fumagalli also was ruled out of the game with a right leg injury after reeling in an 11-yard reception on their first offensive series.

“I think the first half we had four drives were inside the 20 [yard line] and came away with six points,” Chryst said.

The Badgers got a gift when Georgia State muffed a punt attempt, giving them the ball on the Panthers’ 23-yard line. Shaw, who gained 62 yards on the afternoon, carried the ball for 17 yards on four carries that drive, but fumbled on a 3rd-and-goal from the one-yard line.

“We’ve got to be able to put points on the board,” center Michael Deiter said. “We can’t come out here with just six points like that (in the first half). Fumbles will kill you. It’s nice to drive it down there but you’ve got to come away with touchdowns as much as you can, and that’s not what we did today.”

Georgia State provided some life on offense in its first full drive of the second quarter after that, driving 66 yards in 13 plays that ate up nine minutes, 18 seconds. Wisconsin held and forced a 4th-and-7. Defensive end Conor Sheehy blocked Rogier ten Lohuis’ 45-yard attempt.

Towards the end of the half, Wisconsin again drove down the field to set up a 30-yard attempt from Gaglianone. The Brazilian kicker sailed it wide left, his first miss of the 2016 season, and UW went into the locker room with a one-score advantage.

“It is tough,” Houston conceded, who finished 10-of-18 for 91 yards. ‘One of our goals is being better on third downs and finishing drives. It doesn’t feel good to not score points.”

Chryst acknowledged pulling Houston for Hornibrook wasn’t completely on Bart’s hands, and admitted he feels bad in the sense that a lot of focus will go on the redshirt senior’s play.

“We were just off a little bit on some things. We've got to look back at it. You know, it just seemed like it was a little bit—we just weren't in rhythm,” Chryst said. “You know, I didn't feel like he was and initially thought, just give him a little chance just to kind of breathe and see it, and didn't know how the game would play out necessarily.”

Along with the two touchdown drives, Hornibrook also led the Badgers to their third field goal to put them up by six with 3:36 remaining in the game. The defense, which allowed only 302 yards, held its ground, forcing a three-and-out that iced the Panthers’ offense for the rest of the afternoon. UW would then convert a first down and run out the rest of the clock for the win.

Wisconsin’s offense improved in its third-down efficiency (8-of-16) and finished on most of their drives with Hornibrook at the helm—two areas Chryst has repeatedly stressed early on this season. Through two games, the redshirt freshman has completed 13-of-17 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns with an interception (garnering a 284.4 passer rating).

Despite the solid performance from their No. 2 quarterback, Chryst said Houston is still the starter for now, and that he wasn’t “planning anything right now other than appreciating this win.”

Heading into their conference opener against Michigan State next Saturday in East Lansing, the talk this upcoming week may be about who leads the Wisconsin offense.

Does Hornibrook have any expectations for next week, however?

“Not really, no,” he said. “I’ve gotten asked this a few times. Just the same as this week, the week before—just, if they tell me to go in, I’m ready to go. If not, I’m ready to sit on the sidelines and wait for that chance to go in.”