IOWA CITY, Iowa — A daunting task laid before Wisconsin’s offense among a raucous crowd of 69,000-plus fans at Kinnick Stadium. Down by a field goal with under six minutes remaining in the game, Wisconsin’s offense was pinned inside its own 15-yard line.
According to quarterback Alex Hornibrook, that’s what they play for.
“Those are the moments—rivalry game, you’re down,” Hornibrook said. “You got a couple minutes left. We were excited. We couldn’t wait to get that drive going.”
A 10-play, 88-yard drive that chipped nearly five minutes off the play clock ensued, with Wisconsin hitting paydirt on a go-ahead, 17-yard touchdown pass from Hornibrook to junior wide receiver A.J. Taylor with 57 seconds left in regulation. That put the Badgers ahead for good in what eventually became their 28–17 win over the Hawkeyes in an early but critical Big Ten West divisional match-up.
A.J. Taylor comin in clutch pic.twitter.com/Db33KNILOP— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 23, 2018
“They knew we could do it,” Hornibrook said when asked about his demeanor and what he was telling the players as they started that series. “It’s different, but we practice that stuff a lot, so we had confidence that we could do it and we just had to get the drive going.”
Prior to that scoring drive, Wisconsin had only scored on two of its nine drives. According to sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor, however, the confidence among the players was still up.
“Confidence level was definitely high, but the mindset going into that drive is you know what you have to do,” said Taylor, who ran for 113 yards on 25 carries. “You got to go 88 yards, so now it’s just a matter of making it happen, making sure we execute, and driving down the field.”
Wisconsin worked its way deep into Iowa territory, moving the chains four times for first downs and utilizing a variety of contributors. Running backs Taiwan Deal and Garrett Groshek carried the ball on the first two plays for 13 combined yards.
Then the passing game came alive with consecutive completions to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kendric Pryor for five and 28 yards down to the Iowa 42.
Three plays later, Groshek converted a third down on a five-yard reception from Hornibrook to reset a fresh set of downs at the Hawkeyes’ 37-yard line. For the evening, Wisconsin converted seven of 14 third-down conversions.
Two plays later on a 2nd-and-7 from the Iowa 29, the southpaw signal caller found tight end Jake Ferguson for a 12-yard gain, setting up 1st-and-10 from the Iowa 17.
That succession of plays set up what would be the go-ahead touchdown from the arm of Hornibrook to UW’s leading receiver on the very next snap. With 62 seconds left in the contest and fresh off a timeout, Wisconsin lined up with a trips look to the left side of the line of scrimmage. Taylor set up inside of Pryor, who was split out the farthest closest to the sideline, and Ferguson, who was positioned to the left of left tackle Cole Van Lanen.
“We had four vertical routes,” Hornibrook said. “I was just kind of looking at the safety to hold him, and then A.J. had him one-on-one. I think he made his guy fall over, actually, so it was a pretty easy read for me. He made a great catch.”
Taylor said he should have gone outside of the linebacker, Nick Niemann, “but I kind of just relied on my instincts and I decided to cut inside and just straighten it up. When I did it, Alex read me very well, I guess. He threw it in there, and we made it work.”
When Taylor was asked if his quarterback knew he was going to adjust his route, the junior wide receiver—who believed he was the first read on the play—said he didn’t think Hornibrook did and just reacted.
“I think we both did a little bit of playing off of our instincts, and like I said, it worked out very well for ourselves.”
After the third-year wideout hauled in the pass, his first reaction was to make sure it was in his hands. His next was to reel in his emotions.
“I was excited, but I really didn’t want to do anything stupid,” said Taylor, who finished the game with three receptions for 44 yards. “Because in my mind, I wanted to kick the ball, I wanted to throw it, but I just made sure that I was trying to keep my composure.”
Watching from the sideline, redshirt senior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards believed something good was on its way.
“We were juiced, and we felt something coming,” Edwards said. “I thought that all game we were waiting on something big like that, and the receivers were beating their guys all game. We finally connected on one. It was a really good feeling for sure.”
Edwards’s interception on Iowa’s next possession set up Wisconsin’s game-sealing touchdown, an Alec Ingold 33-yard run to cap the evening’s scoring.
That series that started more than midway through the fourth quarter proved the ultimate difference in a rivalry game between two programs who have represented the West division in the past four conference championship games.
Questions swirled after the game about the play of Hornibrook, who completed 17 of 22 attempts for 205 yards and three touchdowns.
“Yeah, I always have confidence in ‘Horni,’” Edwards said. “A guy, like I said, who worked so hard, does everything right, so I knew when those big moments happen, he’s going to be there. Especially being led by those o-linemen, I knew they’d give him time and he hit a perfect strike, so I was excited that he made a big play.”
Redshirt senior safety D’Cota Dixon acknowledged the drive said a lot about Hornibrook’s maturity level.
“I know he gets criticized sometimes by fans and whatever,” Dixon said, “but if it wasn’t for him and our offensive line driving like they had been doing it all game, we wouldn’t have won the game. They won that game for us. We got to be better on defense.”
Another upperclassmen, Ingold, used one word to describe Hornibrook:
“That kid competes,” Ingold said. “He’s never one to take second place and he’s leading this team and he’s under center all the time. I think it’s pretty special to see him out there and just be so composed the whole time.”