ANN ARBOR, Mich. — At Michigan, a pretty big question loomed just before the start of football season: Who will be our quarterback?
At Wisconsin, a similar question hovered: Who, exactly, will be our quarterback?
Michigan and Wisconsin appeared to find their respective answers Sept. 3. In Michigan’s season opener, a 63-3 win over Hawaii at Michigan Stadium, redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight completed 10 of 13 passes for 145 yards and 3 touchdowns — after he was intercepted on his first play.
In Wisconsin’s season opener that same day, fifth-year senior Bart Houston was 19 for 31 passing for 205 yards and was intercepted twice without throwing a touchdown, but did lead the Badgers to a 16-14 win over LSU.
Fast forward four weeks and things have certainly changed, at least on one side of this weekend’s matchup. Alex Hornibrook, a redshirt freshman, replaced Houston as the Badgers’ starting quarterback last weekend and is expected to make his second start for the Badgers at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday when the No. 4 Wolverines (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) host the No. 8 Badgers (4-0, 1-0).
One quarterback — and one team — will leave Michigan Stadium with a loss. But the fact that these two teams are a combined 8-0, and one is still trying to cement its starting quarterback, is remarkable.
Michigan has found stability in Speight, while Wisconsin likely got a better definition of its starting quarterback less than a week ago. In his first start, a 30-6 win over Michigan State last Saturday in East Lansing, Mich., Hornibrook finished 16 for 26 passing for 195 yards and a touchdown, and was intercepted once.
“Alex (Hornibrook) had a heck of a good ballgame,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Really acquitted himself well. Made a name for himself. Very impressed with how he played, the accuracy of his throws, the poise with which he played. It was impressive. Wilton has also been impressive in that regard as well. He’s played with great preparation and confidence and poise. It’s unusual, to be that new to playing in big games.”
Speight entered this season with only seven games of experience as a backup — his most noteworthy game was last October in a 29-26 win at Minnesota, when he relieved an injured Jake Rudock (hit to the head and neck) and was 3-for-6 passing for 29 yards and steered Michigan’s go-ahead touchdown drive.
Speight will make his fifth start this weekend, and has made a steady progression as Michigan’s starting quarterback. He’s not flashy, but he’s definitely consistent — Speight averages 218.8 yards passing in four games —and is learning to roll with the literal and figurative punches.
In last Saturday’s 49-10 win against Penn State, Speight almost went under the radar as Michigan’s ground game flourished with a season-high 326 yards. Speight rebounded after being walloped in a 45-28 win Sept. 17 against Colorado by finishing 21-for-34 passing for 189 yards and a touchdown against the Nittany Lions.
“That hit I took (against Colorado) kind of dictated the internal clock I had for the rest of the game, and I didn’t want that to carry over into this game,” Speight said Saturday. “So, I wanted to hang out in the pocket as long as I could, but when the opportunity was there I knew I needed to make plays with my feet, and I was able to do that.”
Along with his start against the Spartans, Hornibrook played in two other games this season and is 29-for-43 passing for 378 yards and 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He admitted after the win over Michigan State that he saw plenty of room for improvement after his first start, but Hornibrook’s emphasis on preparation has impressed Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst.
“There’s a lot that goes into it, and it’s knowing your opponent, knowing the game plan and going out and being able to execute it,” Chryst said this week. “Then seeing it and saying, OK, this is where I can be better at it and working on it the next day. It’s never-ending.
“But it was pretty cool. Bart (Houston) did a lot of stuff during the game and during the week to help him, and that’s good stuff.”
Speight and Hornibrook have given the Wolverines and the Badgers, respectively, clarity at a position that’s the focal point of each team — something that’s familiar to Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback himself.
“I think back (to) when I was the same age as they were, the same kind of experience of playing in your first couple ball games,” Harbaugh said. “Both of those guys are doing better in my mind than I did and some other guys did when we were young. Playing with more poise and awareness and preparation and confidence, all those things. Both those guys have been impressive in that regard.”