Alex Hornibrook

Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook (12) hands the ball off to running back Bradrick Shaw (7) during the first quarter of a game against the Utah State Aggies at Camp Randal Stadium in Madison, Wis., Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL

M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL

There was a time when the University of Wisconsin football team could get by without stellar quarterback play, a time when the power running game could get the Badgers wherever they wanted to go.

That time has long since passed.

For the Badgers to get where they want to go this season, they'll need more efficient quarterback play than they've had at any time since Russell Wilson showed up out of the blue six years ago. UW's players have talked openly and optimistically about forcing their way into the national championship picture this fall, but that's not likely to happen if the offense remains as one-dimensional as it has been since Wilson's one-and-done season.

That makes Alex Hornibrook by far the Badgers' most important player this season.

The redshirt sophomore, who split time at quarterback with Bart Houston last season, has the job all to himself this season and his development is crucial if the Badgers hope to turn this into a special season. The tall left-hander had his moments as a freshman, but UW will need far more consistency from him this year.

The Badgers will also need Hornibrook to be good enough to pick up the team when things are going poorly. Like, say, when they sleepwalk through the opening half of the season's first game.

Hornibrook had an unexpected early test against Utah State Friday night at Camp Randall Stadium, with the fired-up Aggies grabbing a 10-0 lead over a UW team that was playing like it believed it had already clinched a College Football Playoff bid. But if the ninth-ranked Badgers were guilty of believing their own hype, they were also good enough to right themselves and rally for a 59-10 rout of the Aggies.

Like the Badgers, Hornibrook started slowly. In fact, his best play in the first quarter was a touchdown-saving, shoe-string tackle in the open field after he mishandled a snap and the Aggies recovered.

Not that he was getting much help. Hornibrook was sacked twice on UW's opening series, once by a blitzing cornerback he didn't see coming in untouched from his back side, once on a delayed blitz by a linebacker when he probably had enough time to get rid of the ball. He also saw his receivers drop three of his first four passes.

But also like the Badgers, Hornibrook rebounded from his early struggles to play an outstanding second half. After completing two of his first six passes, he seldom missed, finishing with 15 completions in 23 attempts for a career-best 244 yards and a career-best three touchdowns. He didn't throw an interception.

"I didn't feel like he was skittish or anything (early)," coach Paul Chryst said. "He didn't have a ton of opportunities. But I didn't feel any nervousness from him. We just weren't executing. We all worked through it. I'm proud of their response and Alex would be included in that."

Chryst wouldn't go there, but Hornibrook was the primary catalyst in UW's comeback. With the Badgers trailing 10-0 with about 10 minutes left in the first half, he directed a 15-play, 79-yard drive that resulted in a 3-yard touchdown run by Bradrick Shaw. Hornibrook was 3-for-3 on third-down conversion passes during the drive, which turned the game around for UW.

"They stole the momentum back right there when they converted on those third downs and got the crowd into it," Utah State coach Matt Wells said. "It got them right back in the game."

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Hornibrook's performance was how he used all his receivers. The Badgers talked about having more weapons this season and those weapons were on display against the Aggies.

Freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor made tacklers miss and showed the home-run ability his teammates kept raving about. But Hornibrook's ability to spread the ball around and finish off drives with touchdowns was equally impressive. Tight ends Troy Fumagalli and Zander Neuville and wide receiver Quinten Cephus caught scoring passes.

Having so many playmakers in the passing game is something recent UW quarterbacks have lacked.

"We've got a lot of weapons out there and we tried to use all of them tonight," Hornibrook said. "I feel confident every guy out there can make a play for us."

Early in the week, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph spoke glowingly of the progress Hornibrook has made since the end of last season.

"He can make the throws," Rudolph said. "The thing that's impressed me the most is his pocket presence and awareness has really developed. He looks at things with more mature eyes."

After Hornibrook and the now-departed Houston tag-teamed the position last year, the offense was turned over to Hornibrook in spring practice.

Because he's not blessed with a cannon for an arm, Hornibrook had to learn what throws he could and couldn't make against college defenses. As with most young quarterbacks, though, his throws gained velocity as he gained a greater understanding of the position.

Hornibrook still has a tendency to float the ball on occasion, but Friday night his poise and accuracy were superb once he got his feet underneath him. Just like his team.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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