MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Alex Hornibrook didn’t even attempt to stifle a small laugh as he sat at a podium in the bowels of Hard Rock Stadium early Sunday morning following one of the strongest quarterbacking performances of his career.
Hornibrook had earned most valuable player honors moments earlier during Wisconsin’s 34-24 Orange Bowl victory against Miami. He did so after completing 23 of 34 passes for 258 yards with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. For some historical perspective on just how dominant he was, consider that no Badgers quarterback had ever thrown more than 2 touchdown passes in a bowl game.
Yet even while basking in triumph, a reporter prefaced his question about how Hornibrook was able to pick apart Miami by pointing out that he had struggled with interceptions this season.
“I guess we got lucky and didn’t throw any picks today,” Hornibrook deadpanned, before a wry smile creased his face and laughter followed.
Maybe Hornibrook couldn’t quell every query regarding the mistakes he made throughout the 2017 season, but his final outing certainly had the potential to change the narrative. In the process, perhaps he even silenced a vocal minority of fans calling for backup quarterback Jack Coan to take his place.
“When he’s on, he’s on,” Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor said of Hornibrook. “The trust that he has in our receivers, that connection that they have, it’s second to none. He knows where to put the ball. He knows what receivers can make what plays.”
Hornibrook faced a constant barrage of criticism all season because he routinely made at least one poor throw in most games. He was intercepted in each of Wisconsin’s first eight Big Ten games, including three times against Iowa. During the Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin couldn’t muster a rushing attack against Ohio State’s front seven. Hornibrook was forced to throw a career-high 40 passes. He completed 19 of 40 attempts without a touchdown and was intercepted twice.
Hornibrook threw 15 interceptions this season, which tied for the fifth most in the FBS. He threw 1 interception every 21.2 passes. The average total for the dozen other quarterbacks with at least 13 interceptions this season was one pick every 30.6 passes. Only Charlotte’s Hassan Klugh, who threw an interception every 21.4 passes, was close to Hornibrook’s interception rate among that group.
But to focus strictly on Hornibrook’s interceptions does not paint a full picture of just how good his redshirt sophomore season was for the Badgers. He threw 25 touchdowns to rank second on Wisconsin’s single-season list behind Russell Wilson’s 33 in 2011. His 2,644 passing yards rank fifth in a single season in school history. His 62.3 percent completion rate ranks seventh.
Hornibrook also improved to 20-3 (.870 winning percentage) as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, the best win percentage in school history. He developed a knack for responding from mistakes by leading touchdown drives that shifted momentum in games against Northwestern, Nebraska, Maryland, Indiana and Michigan.
One of the overriding critiques of Hornibrook was his perceived lack of arm strength. But during the Orange Bowl, Hornibrook was slinging fastballs that zipped by Miami defenders and into the waiting arms of Wisconsin receivers. Hornibrook’s second touchdown pass was a great back-shoulder throw to receiver A.J. Taylor, placed in a spot where only he could catch the ball. The play gave Wisconsin a 17-14 lead with 5:49 remaining in the second quarter, and the Badgers never trailed again.
“I think I kind of knew from the start that we were going to be able to execute on those plays,” Hornibrook said. “I put all my trust in the guys around me. We were able to play well.”
On a third-and-11 from the Miami 31 with 40 seconds left in the half, Hornibrook stepped up in the pocket to avoid a pass rush and connected with receiver Kendric Pryor over the middle. Hornibrook then fired over the top of two Miami defenders and past a third to hit Danny Davis in stride on a crossing route near the back of the end zone. Hornibrook’s fourth and final touchdown pass was another beauty to Davis just as he turned to look for the ball to give Wisconsin a 34-24 fourth-quarter lead.
“He was moving around and making throws,” Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter said. “I just think he was having a blast. He’s always had that in him. And it’s really sweet because the season he’s had, he’s had some days that weren’t the prettiest and he’s caught some heat for stuff.
“For him to go out and play like that, I think it just shows what kind of kid he is. Resilient, and he’s a playmaker. He needs to run with this momentum and just keep getting better.”
It seems highly improbable that Hornibrook, fresh off his MVP performance in the Orange Bowl, could lose his starting spot. Coan demonstrated maturity, accuracy and decent mobility during spring practice, fall camp and in limited game action. But Coan also has thrown only 5 career passes. Hornibrook has thrown 499 passes. And when Hornibrook is in a groove, he can be a difference maker for the Badgers.
There were four games this season in which he did not throw an interception: against Utah State, BYU, Minnesota and Miami. In those contests, Hornibrook completed 71 of 95 passes (74.7 percent) with 14 touchdowns. In the other 10 games, he completed 127 of 223 passes (56.9 percent) with 11 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Getting more consistency from Hornibrook next season will be key, but it’s important to note he’s only halfway through his college career. If he demonstrates year-over-year improvement in the same way he did from his freshman to sophomore seasons, the offense could really shine. Among starters, Wisconsin loses tight end Troy Fumagalli and fullback Austin Ramesh. Deiter could leave school early for the NFL but has yet to announce a decision.
Wisconsin returns at least four offensive line starters, all of its top receivers and a trio of talented running backs led by Taylor. With Hornibrook pulling the strings, the offense has a chance to be one of the best in school history.
“That’s a great kid,” Badgers cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “He’s only going to get better from here. He’s a sophomore. He’s a young guy. Next year I feel like he’s going to be something special.”