MADISON, Wis. — The groans were emanating from beyond Camp Randall Stadium, on television sets from Wisconsin football fans across the country. Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook had thrown yet another interception, the type of maddening decision that drives armchair quarterbacks everywhere crazy.
Hornibrook’s interception during No. 5 Wisconsin’s eventual 38-13 victory against Maryland on Saturday marked his sixth in four Big Ten games. It has become a disturbing trend in a season with sky-high playoff expectations. But if his turnovers are a hot-button topic of conversation among the fan base, his consistent ability to respond from mistakes should be discussed as well. In fact, he routinely has been at his best after being at his worst.
“I think it’s just knowing why the bad play happened, interception, whatever,” Hornibrook said. “Knowing what it is and knowing how to fix it.”
Saturday’s game provided yet another case study.
Hornibrook faced a third-and-3 from the Maryland 41-yard line on Wisconsin’s first offensive drive when he threw a pass that Terrapins safety Josh Woods intercepted. On the ensuing Badgers possession, running back Jonathan Taylor lost a fumble at Wisconsin’s own 5-yard line.
When Hornibrook returned to the field with Wisconsin holding a 7-3 lead in the second quarter, he had thrown 2 passes. He quickly found his rhythm and led a 10-play, 70-yard drive that was capped by Taylor’s 3-yard touchdown run to give Wisconsin a 14-3 lead. Hornibrook completed 5 of 6 passes for 74 yards during the drive, which included a 30-yard pass to receiver Quintez Cephus.
Hornibrook completed 4 of 5 passes for 43 yards during the next drive, which culminated with an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zander Neuville. The score gave Wisconsin a 21-3 halftime edge, and the Badgers never looked back.
During those two drives, Hornibrook’s favorite target was tight end Troy Fumagalli, who caught 5 passes for 59 yards in the quarter.
“He does a tremendous job of having that next-play mentality,” said Fumagalli, who finished with 7 catches for 83 yards. “That’s something you can’t teach. You see some athletes that can really do that. It’s like giving up a home run in baseball, and it’s the next pitch that really matters. It’s really in his own head, and it’s a testament to how confident he is in himself and how he believes in himself. That’s really cool he can do that.”
Hornibrook put together a third stellar drive after halftime when he completed 4 for 5 passes for 65 yards. The last pass was an 18-yard touchdown strike to receiver A.J. Taylor to give the Badgers a 28-3 lead. Hornibrook finished the game completing 16 of 24 passes for 225 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.
What makes Hornibrook such an effective quarterback, teammates say, is the even-keeled approach he brings to the huddle regardless of the circumstances.
“He’s the same person he was before the mistake, same person he was in practice, same person he always is,” A.J. Taylor said. “I asked him one day, I was like, ‘How did you react when you threw a pick? Or how’d you react when I fumbled?’ He was like, ‘You just say, oh, that sucks. And then you just keep it moving. We’ve got a whole game to play.’ I really like how Alex can come back from a situation like that.”
Hornibrook said his demeanor was not something he planned.
“I think it just happens,” Hornibrook said. “I don’t actively tell myself to act calm. I think it just kind of happens sometimes. Obviously you’re going to change within in the game, but I think for the most part I stay the same.”
The game did not mark the first time Hornibrook managed to quickly fix his mistakes during conference play.
Hornibrook threw two second-quarter interceptions against Northwestern in the Big Ten opener, and the Badgers entered halftime trailing 10-7. In the third quarter, Hornibrook caught fire. He completed 6 of 7 passes for 128 yards with 1 touchdown to alter the complexion of the game.
He launched a long bomb for 61 yards to Cephus that led to an 11-yard touchdown run from Jonathan Taylor. On the next drive, Hornibrook completed both of his passes, including a 5-yard touchdown strike receiver Danny Davis. Wisconsin ended the third quarter with a 21-10 lead.
And two weeks ago, Hornibrook threw a pick-six to Nebraska’s Aaron Williams that tied the score at 17-17 in Lincoln. Hornibrook then completed both of his attempts on the next drive for 36 yards. His last pass was a 5-yard touchdown to Cephus that gave Wisconsin a 24-17 lead in a game the Badgers would go on to win 38-17.
In four Big Ten games, Hornibrook has completed 49 of 79 passes (62.0 percent) for 734 yards with 5 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He was asked following Saturday’s game to assess his performance this season in conference games.
“There’s a ton of stuff that I can improve on,” he said. “I felt like I haven’t played as best I could so far. So I’m going to definitely try to do that as we go forward.”
Badgers coach Paul Chryst said Hornibrook possesses confidence and poise, and his competitive drive fuels his ability to thrive in adverse situations. The key for Hornibrook and the Badgers’ offense moving forward is determining how he can eliminate those one or two poor throws each game.
“Sometimes, it’s not there, or something doesn’t go the way that you think it may versus that coverage,” Chryst said. “It seems to me that’s what you’ve just got to flush a little bit. He’s got to continue to feel when he’s out of it that, ‘All right, maybe there’s nothing there,’ and come back to it.
“You try to balance that with playing the game. Certainly you don’t want him to be robotic, but I think you just continue to keep letting him see it and talk with him about what he saw, what he felt, and then you’ve got to trust guys and go out and play. But I do think the way he responded was really impressive.”
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