Great piece of and so true :
— Michael Deiter was flagged for a false start and two holding penalties Saturday against Illinois. His holding penalty on the decisive drive against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship last December put Wisconsin in a nearly impossible first-and-20 scenario that effectively ended the game. And yet there isn’t a vocal minority of fans clamoring for the Badgers to replace their starting left guard.
A.J. Taylor appeared to run the wrong route after miscommunicating with his quarterback, which contributed to an interception and three points for the Illini before halftime. Dropped passes have plagued him throughout his career. But perpetuating the notion that Taylor is a terrible wide receiver would be silly.
Alex Hornibrook threw three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions during Wisconsin’s 49-20 victory against Illinois at Camp Randall Stadium. However, those miscues and others like them seem to offer validation to some fans that Hornibrook isn’t up to snuff as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback of the present or future. His perceived lack of growth is a reason why people point to someone else as being the solution for the Badgers under center.
The double standard here is where some of Hornibrook’s teammates draw the line. College athletes are human. Mistakes happen. But when they take place at quarterback, which is the most magnified position in sports, the noise reverberating from the echo chamber that is talk radio or message boards or social media is loudest. Hornibrook threw another interception? He must go.
“If people were able to see all that we had parts in — receivers, backs — they’d go, ‘Oh wait. There’s a lot more we could bitch about,’ ” Deiter said. “All they know is, ‘Ah, the quarterback’s not hitting his throws. He must suck.’ That’s all they can really put two and two together. It’s like, ‘Well, you just don’t know enough about the sport.’
“I think with Alex, he’s played well, the way he’s been able to bounce back with all the stuff he gets. And he gets a ton of heat all the time. He does a really good job of not worrying about it, not letting it get to him and just working each week. That’s awesome to hear because I don’t think I could handle the stuff he gets. But I guess that’s kind of what comes with the territory with the quarterback. It definitely gets a little annoying.”
The conversations about Hornibrook’s shortcomings have been ongoing for three seasons. He struggles if the pocket begins to collapse, and he must reset his feet. He occasionally tries to fit the ball into a small window when he’d be better served checking down or throwing the pass away. Finesse on touch passes such as screens remains an issue as well.
It is true that Wisconsin’s passing game has not taken the steps forward that many believed were possible before the season. Hornibrook has thrown for more than 200 yards in only two of seven games, and it is not unreasonable to expect him to be better. As the starting quarterback, he certainly plays a vital role in the offensive progression. But so do mistakes from the offensive line, receivers and backfield members.
“It’s very easy to say just plug someone else in,” Badgers inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “Through his entire time here, he gets the most flak out of anybody I’ve ever seen. But it’s kind of what comes with being the quarterback. He just battles, and he keeps his composure. He’s very mentally tough.”
What is most maddening to fans is that Hornibrook can play so well in some games and then so inconsistently in other games. He was nearly perfect last season against BYU. He earned most valuable player honors for his performance in the Orange Bowl against Miami. He completed 9 of 10 passes in the second half against Iowa last month, including all five throws on the game-winning drive to put Wisconsin in position to win the Big Ten West again.
Two Saturdays ago against Michigan, however, he completed 7 of 20 passes for 100 yards with one late touchdown and two interceptions. It’s worth noting that Michigan, which has the best defense in the FBS, held Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke to 5 of 25 completions for 66 yards Saturday in the Spartans’ 21-7 loss against the Wolverines.
“Adversity fuels me,” Hornibrook said. “It makes me want to go play again. I wanted to play another game right after we lost last week. So, it’s not going to hold us back at all. I think we like it.”
There is a tendency to focus on everything that Hornibrook is not rather than what he is: a capable quarterback who can help win Wisconsin games. Sometimes, his poor decisions prove costly. On other occasions, his play is the reason why the Badgers have a chance.
This season, Hornibrook has completed 93 of 156 passes (59.6 percent) for 1,251 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. On Saturday, he became the seventh player in school history to throw for at least 5,000 yards in his career. He has amassed six three-touchdown games, which is tied for first in program history. Hornibrook has 45 career touchdown passes, the fourth-best mark all-time at Wisconsin. He likely will shatter the school record of 59 touchdown passes held by Darrell Bevell. He is 25-5 as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, including 19-3 in Big Ten games.
Hornibrook also has decreased his turnover rate. Last season, he threw 15 interceptions, which was more than all but four FBS quarterbacks. He threw an interception every 21.2 pass attempts. This season, he has thrown an interception once every 26 pass attempts. Those accomplishments haven’t drowned out the noise about his failures.
“I’ve kind of started to just block it out,” Badgers tight end Jake Ferguson said. “The first couple weeks, I started to get angry and I kind of let it show. But now it’s more of I know how he can play. I know who he is as a guy. I have complete faith in him, so I kind of just block it out.”
How did Ferguson let it show?
“Walking into the locker room pissed off. Just being pissed off all day. He’s my guy. It’s like someone talking about your brother in a bad way. You don’t like that.”
Wisconsin is 5-2 this season, which means the Badgers won’t fulfill their goal of reaching the College Football Playoff. To some, that is enough reason to write off the season and suggest coaches must begin planning for the future. Fans tire of seeing the same mistakes made by one player (see Joel Stave), even though the next will have his own set of mistakes.
Two of the most well-worn sentiments in recent weeks have been variations of these sentences: “Put backup quarterback Jack Coan in the game because he can’t be any worse” or “Graham Mertz can’t arrive at Wisconsin fast enough.”
I think when you’re not Alex, you hear it a lot,” Badgers fullback Alec Ingold said. “No one wants to say it to his face. But the thing about Alex is he doesn’t let it faze him.”
To begin with, if Coan was a better quarterback than Hornibrook, he would be playing. Wisconsin’s coaching staff has had an opportunity to evaluate Coan since his arrival for spring practice in 2017. He is the backup quarterback for a reason. Badgers coach Paul Chryst has earned the benefit of the doubt in his career when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks. To suggest that Coan is only the backup because he hasn’t been given a real chance is the same thing people once said about Tanner McEvoy, D.J. Gillins and Bart Houston, among other Badgers quarterbacks in recent years.
Beyond that, the Badgers are looking at the long game for Coan by trying to help him retain a redshirt year this season. Yes, Coan can play in up to four games and keep the redshirt under NCAA rules. But it makes little sense to play him now, when he hasn’t earned the starting job, and then risk burning a year of eligibility on an experiment in the middle of Big Ten play. If coaches truly believe Hornibrook is the player holding back Wisconsin’s offense next season, Coan will earn his shot.
Mertz, a Wisconsin commit in the 2019 class, is the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the country, according to the 247Sports composite. He is the highest-rated signal-caller the Badgers have had during the online recruiting ranking era. Because he earned subsequent scholarship offers from schools such as Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Georgia, Clemson and more, the assumption is that he’ll be an instant program-changer even though most fans have never seen him play.
But just because Mertz will be on campus next season doesn’t guarantee he’ll immediately be a better option than Hornibrook, who will have started for three seasons. Houston commanded a similar level of attention as a 4-star high school prospect but didn’t play consistently meaningful snaps until his fifth and final season in the program. Mertz still will have much to learn about Wisconsin’s system, and it is practical that he will take a redshirt season and then compete for the starting job in 2020 after Hornibrook leaves.
Of course, the backup quarterback is constantly considered a better option because his flaws have not been exposed yet to the viewing public.
“One thing about Alex, he’s going to go out there and compete and work his butt off,” Badgers receiver Kendric Pryor said. “He really doesn’t care what people say. Honestly to all of us, nothing anyone else says outside of our room matters. People are always going to be with you when you’re on top. As soon as something bad happens, people always are going to be quick to flip the switch on you. So, that’s why we don’t worry about what people say.”
Hornibrook’s day against Illinois was a microcosm of his career, highlighting his deficiencies and contributions. Hornibrook said his first interception came on the look he wanted. Taylor didn’t break on the ball and didn’t seem to know it was in the air, and the pass wound up in the hands of safety Stanley Green, who returned it 49 yards to the Wisconsin 40. The interception led to a 52-yard field goal from kicker Chase McLaughlin that trimmed the Illinois deficit to 28-10 at halftime.
“It was just one little error,” Hornibrook said. “We weren’t on the same page, so it was a bad result. But it was something we cleaned up right away when we got to the sideline.”
Earlier in the first half, Hornibrook threw into triple coverage for Ferguson running across midfield. Ferguson was leveled, and the pass was picked off before it was called back because of a personal foul on Illinois defensive tackle Calvin Avery.
Hornibrook stumbled on a play-action handoff sequence to tailback Jonathan Taylor in the third quarter that resulted in his second official interception of the game. He threw across his body while moving backward. Defensive tackle Kenyon Jackson reached a hand out to tip the ball, which landed in the hands of linebacker Jimmy Marchese. Illinois then scored a touchdown that brought the Illini to within 28-17.
“He had a couple that weren’t great,” Chryst said of Hornibrook, “but I see what he was seeing. Liked his decision-making on that. Obviously, the picks you want to look at a little bit closer and see. But I thought he made some really good plays. The best part about Alex is he keeps playing, doesn’t let the previous play, good or bad, affect what’s happening next.”
Hornibrook put together some big plays as well. He stood in the pocket with a defender barreling down on him and delivered an accurate pass to Ferguson that traveled 40 yards in the air in the only place where Ferguson could catch it. Ferguson collected the pass with Illinois defensive back Sydney Brown on his back for a 27-yard touchdown that put Wisconsin ahead 21-7 with 2:55 remaining in the second quarter.
Hornibrook has demonstrated improvement this season when he rolls to his left to hit a receiver on the run. On his second touchdown pass, he ran away from defensive tackle Lere Oladipo and connected with tight end Kyle Penniston for an 11-yard touchdown, which put Wisconsin in front 28-7.
Naturally, the focus afterward was more about Hornibrook’s mistakes than the plays he executed. Hornibrook is so insulated and focused during the season that he wisely doesn’t make time to scroll through social media feeds to see what others are saying about him. Last season, he didn’t tweet anything between July 12, 2017, and Jan. 21, 2018. He hasn’t tweeted since May 28.
“I don’t just love going through Twitter and stuff,” Hornibrook said. “I do some other stuff, listen to music or something. I have it in the offseason, but I don’t really care for it right now.
“I think just in general, it’s kind of more enjoyable when you’re not on your phone all the time and on social media regardless if you play football or not. I think some people realize that. Some people don’t. But I just kind of like it in general not being on it.”
Ultimately, if people are upset that Wisconsin doesn’t have a better quarterback, that is not Hornibrook’s fault. Certainly, he has his imperfections. If Coan or Mertz or anyone else wants to take his job, they’ll have to prove their value in a competition on the field. In the meantime, Hornibrook will continue to do what he has done since he arrived at Wisconsin: prepare to give the Badgers the best chance to win games.
In the end, that’s all he can control.