It’s a great time to Badger. Mostly.
Wisconsin is 10–0 for the first time in program history. The Badgers have cracked the top five in both polls and are No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday. Jim Leonhard’s unit is ranked No. 1 in the entire country in total defense. College GameDay will be in town Saturday for what may be the biggest Badgers regular-season game ever.
When so many program elements go so well, it is inevitable that struggling units will get an unwanted spotlight. With quarterback play being ... erratic during conference play, sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook is living under that spotlight.
Ever since Wisconsin’s 40–6 shelling of BYU, when Hornibrook set a school record for completion percentage in a game and had swaths of the fan base dreaming of Wisconsin as a new Quarterback U, the sophomore signal caller has come back to earth in a big way.
In 10 games, Hornibrook has completed just over 64 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,863 yards and 17 touchdowns. Unfortunately, he has also thrown 12 interceptions, including a pick-six at Nebraska and two pick-sixes last week against Iowa.
Ball control (or lack thereof) has been a recurring theme. Hornibrook has thrown an interception in all but two games (against less-than-stellar Utah State and BYU defenses). In Big Ten play, he has been picked off 11 times, including multi-interception games against Northwestern, Purdue, and Iowa.
With Wisconsin’s defense playing at an otherwordly level and the running game churning along on the back of a resurgent line and Big-Ten-Freshman-of-the-Week-86-times-in-a-row Jonathan Taylor, an upperclassman quarterback able to take care of the ball and manage the game would be ideal. Unfortunately, none is available.
Much was made on the Badgers fan Twitterverse Saturday about the failure of Gary Andersen’s staff to identify and develop a quarterback during its three recruiting classes.
Tanner McEvoy, D.J. Gillins, and Austin Kafentzis were all talented athletes who Andersen hoped to model into a Chuckie Keeton-style, dual-threat quarterback.
McEvoy was the No. 1 junior college dual-threat quarterback when Andersen recruited him out of Arizona Western College. Gillins, now plying his trade at SMU after spending 2016 at Pearl River Community College, was a four-star prep player who was ranked as high as the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback in his class. Kafentzis was the No. 1 player in Utah by some services when he was recruited by Andersen.
Despite their prep accolades and atheticism, it was clear upon Paul Chryst’s arrival that neither Gillins nor Kafentzis was going to cut it in the new offensive system as a quarterback. Both moved on, leaving the upper shelves of Wisconsin’s quarterback cupboard bare.
It is hard to remember, particularly when he is throwing touchdowns to Iowa, that Hornibrook is just a third-year sophomore. Under most circumstances, he would be sitting for at least another season. Here, in the midst of Wisconsin’s dream season, he finds himself pressed into learning hard lessons on the job.
Certain (dark, oh lord, so dark) elements of the Badgers Twitterverse began rumbling for freshman Jack Coan after watching Hornibrook’s second pick-six of the Iowa game, once again proving the adage that the most popular player on the team is the back-up quarterback before he throws a pass.
It’s unlikely that we’ll see Coan taking meaningful snaps this year. From all accounts, Coan is extremely talented, but a team seriously looking to play for a national title generally does not switch quarterbacks three-quarters of the way through the season, particularly for a true freshman.
Coan will get an opportunity to compete in 2018, but it will take a meltdown of greater proportions than we saw against Iowa for him to see the field against Michigan.
Because the ball-control problems have been so prevalent and have led to such spectacularly bad results, it’s hard to remember that Hornibrook is actually a pretty talented quarterback. He is accurate (passes to Iowa’s Josh Jackson and his defensive peers aside). He can make the throws he is asked to make. The team responds to him.
Wisconsin’s schedule is about to get Capital ‘H’ Hard. Michigan comes to Camp Randall on Saturday. The Badgers then travel to Minnesota for a rivalry game that will have the Gophers frothing. Whichever team from the East plays Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game will be the best team the Badgers have played all year—until their postseason game.
If Wisconsin wants to keep the dream alive, much rests on the shoulders of its young quarterback. Two seasons of play, erratic as they have been, is a large-enough sample size to see that Hornibrook has the skills and raw talent to be a Big Ten-caliber starting quarterback. The question remains whether everything will come together in time to complete this magical run.