ARLINGTON, Texas — Whether Alex Hornibrook starts or not, Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst is adamant that his redshirt freshman quarterback will play Monday against Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl.
When he does, it will be the first live action Hornibrook has seen in more than five weeks.
In that time, he’s overcome the head injury that kept him out of the Big Ten Championship Game and had some time to reflect on the trials and tribulations of his first college season.
“That was a part of the bowl prep the initial week when we were kind of getting back into things,” Hornibrook said. “It was looking back on what we did this season and what we can improve.
“I feel like I’ve improved a lot. I’ve had a lot of time to watch more film and get some more practice in.”
Teammates have noticed a spring in Hornibrook’s step.
“He’s definitely back to 100 percent,” Wisconsin WR Jazz Peavy said. “He’s back out there doing his thing.”
Of course, regardless of whether he starts, Hornibrook will have to split snaps with senior Bart Houston. Chryst reiterated during Media Day on Saturday that he will not announce a starter before kickoff.
“Our players know that both are going to play, and the quarterbacks know, too,” he said.
The use of two quarterbacks has been a signature element of Wisconsin’s offense most of the season, the result of a preseason quarterback race that was seemingly too close to call coming out of fall camp and continued throughout the first four games.
That element was absent in the Big Ten title game, and the Badgers offense sputtered down the stretch in a 38-31 loss to Penn State.
“We definitely lost an element because that’s been our thing the whole season,” Peavy said. “To take that away from us could’ve hurt us, it could have not hurt us, you never know what could have changed if he was playing. That’s just the cards we were dealt.”
Does Hornibrook believe he could have made the difference?
“You always want to think that if you’re a quarterback,” he said. “But I felt like Bart did a great job and he put the team in a chance to be successful.”
Houston completed 16 of 21 passes for 174 yards against the Nittany Lions. He did not throw a touchdown, but also did not turn the ball over. It was his first start since the Badgers’ final nonconference game Sept. 17 against Georgia State. Hornibrook took over the following week at Michigan State and shined, then started the rest of the way until his injury.
The two-quarterback rotation began in earnest at Iowa on Oct. 22, and the Badgers have not lost when both see significant action.
“It’ll be awesome to have (Hornibrook) back in there and available for this game,” sophomore C Michael Deiter said. “He’s a battler. He’s tough. He kept that same approach even though he had to miss a game and some time.”
Both Houston and Hornibrook have plenty to play for Monday. It’s a chance for Houston — a senior — to go out on top. For Hornibrook, it’s an opportunity to reiterate to fans and teammates that he is the future of the position.
“This is definitely a big game for Alex,” said Peavy, a junior. “It’s a chance to leave it all out there and leave everyone knowing who he is and who he’s going to as a quarterback — and who he’s going to be for this university.”