MADISON, Wis. — Absent context, Alex Hornibrook’s declaration could fall just about anywhere on the spectrum between acute self-awareness and hubris. Asked how he hopes to improve this season, Wisconsin’s third-year starting quarterback says this:
“Being a difference-maker. Sometimes in the past, I’ve been more of a game manager.”
Almost as soon as the words escape his mouth, Hornibrook wants to clarify. He offers up the context that docks them snugly on the self-awareness side. “Being a difference-maker doesn’t mean I have to be throwing the ball 30 times a game,” he says. “It just means that when I am, I’m doing well and I’m helping the team. There might be a game where we only need to throw it 12 times because [Jonathan Taylor] is running everywhere and the O-line is blocking. But when I do get a chance, I need to execute and help us out.”
Hornibrook is smart enough to know that the Badgers will ride a veteran offensive line and a Heisman contender tailback as far as possible. He’s the son of a former Temple offensive lineman (Jeff) and the brother of an offensive line recruit (Jake) who just chose Stanford over Wisconsin and Clemson. Hornibrook isn’t going to take a dominant line and dynamic running game for granted. That is Wisconsin’s identity, and it has won a lot of games. Hornibrook also is smart enough to know that if Wisconsin wants to take the next step and win the Big Ten title instead of just playing for it, he could very well be the deciding factor. In that way, he’s one of the most important players in college football this season. The Badgers have won double-digit games every season since 2014, but despite being the most consistent program in America not named Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State, Wisconsin hasn’t won a conference title or made the College Football Playoff during that stretch. If Hornibrook takes the step he wants to take, he might be able to help the Badgers over that hump.
Hornibrook seems ready to make that leap. While he always could lead on the field, he’s getting more comfortable in the spotlight with his helmet off. Hornibrook learned guitar in high school in a class called Guitar Ensemble. If he played solo, he preferred to have no audience. But earlier this year, he did this.
While Hornibrook has a better voice than most of his fellow signal-callers, his future probably is in football. And it could be a long one. Other than one season with Russell Wilson, the Wisconsin quarterbacks of the past 10 years have been written off as game managers who handed off and only threw when play-action had left receivers wide open. That’s a grossly oversimplified characterization that, like a lot of stereotypes, became a stereotype because there’s enough truth in the mix to make it stick. But what we’ve seen from Hornibrook already defies that label for better and for worse. Let’s play a quick quarterback blind résumé game using 2017 stats.
Completion percentage: 63.1%
Yards per attempt: 8.6
Completion percentage: 66.5%
Yards per attempt: 8.4
Completion percentage: 62.3%
Yards per attempt: 8.3
Completion percentage: 64.7%
Yards per attempt: 8.2
So which one is Hornibrook? Wisconsin fans will easily guess he’s Quarterback No. 3 because that interception stat is burned into their brains. Hornibrook’s numbers look almost identical to Quarterback 1’s. Who was that? USC’s Sam Darnold, who was the third pick in the NFL draft. The other two quarterbacks took care of the ball better than Hornibrook but had almost identical yards per attempt stats. Quarterback 2 is Penn State’s Trace McSorley, who is widely considered the best quarterback in the Big Ten. Quarterback 4 is Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett*, who capped his Buckeyes career with a Big Ten title.
*Barrett threw four of those nine interceptions in Ohio State’s 55–24 loss at Iowa last season. That game, which kept the Buckeyes out of the playoff, was a disaster on every level.
Hornibrook probably isn’t going to be a top-five draft pick. He probably won’t wow NFL scouts with his arm strength the way Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson did. But Hornibrook absolutely can be a great college quarterback, get drafted and get paid for a long time in the NFL. Wisconsin doesn’t win in spite of him, and those numbers show he isn’t that far from his goal of being a true difference-maker. In fact, if he slices that interception total in half and keeps the other numbers steady, he might lead the Badgers to the playoff.
His picks last year were clustered into three games. He threw two against Northwestern, three against Iowa and two against Ohio State. Northwestern and Ohio State limited Wisconsin’s run game more than any other teams did all season. The Badgers averaged three yards a carry against the Wildcats and 1.9 against the Buckeyes. The passing game was their only hope, and Hornibrook pressed. In a 38–14 win against the Hawkeyes, Wisconsin averaged five yards a carry. The lesson, based on the past four paragraphs, is that no one should have ever thrown against Iowa last year.
Wisconsin’s Orange Bowl win against Miami offered evidence that Hornibrook can be that difference-maker. The Hurricanes limited the Badgers to 3.2 yards a carry, selling out to stop the run and leaving one-on-one matchups on the outside. Hornibrook completed 23 of 34 passes for 258 yards with four touchdowns and—here’s the important one—zero interceptions in a 34–24 victory.
The game turned in the second quarter. The Badgers trailed 14–3 and faced third-and-seven on the Miami 20-yard line. Wisconsin had gotten the ball on Miami’s 23 thanks to an Andrew Van Ginkel interception. Settling for a field goal would have further demoralized an offense that had gained exactly one yard the previous two possessions. Missing that field goal would have been brutal. But the Badgers didn’t need to try a field goal because Hornibrook did this.
That back-shoulder throw to then-freshman Danny Davis lit the fuse for Wisconsin. The Badgers’ next possession—a 12-play, 71-yard drive that ran 6:38 off the clock—ended thusly:
Hornibrook wasn’t done, though. After converting a third-and-11 with a laser beam across the middle to Kendric Pryor, Hornibrook did this to close the half:
The Badgers went into the half firmly in control. Hornibrook had made the difference.
This year, Wisconsin likely will need this Hornibrook in games against Iowa, Michigan and Penn State. Should Wisconsin win the Big Ten West for a third consecutive season, the Badgers will need this Hornibrook in Indianapolis against whatever beast emerges from the East division.
Hornibrook knows this, and he has spent the offseason trying to prevent those interceptions before the ball is ever snapped. As a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy, Hornibrook asked Peyton Manning questions every chance he got. “He was so advanced. He was so far ahead of the defenses he was playing and the other quarterbacks he was playing against,” Hornibrook says. “It seemed like he knew what was happening before it was happening. He’ll tell you he didn’t, but he kind of did.”
Back in Madison, Hornibrook routinely texts teammates clips of plays from old games or practices to try to diagnose what went wrong or right and what he can do to make sure they’re run perfectly in the future. This summer, center Tyler Biadasz has received quite a few texts from his quarterback. “What were you seeing on this play?” Biadasz says of the text included with each clip. Left tackle Jon Dietzen, who started at left guard last season, gets similar messages. “Hornibrook’s a big film guy,” Dietzen says. “He’ll be scrounging through something and say, ‘Hey, what happened?’ It’s kind of tough to recall.” But, Dietzen says, Hornibrook remembers everything.
If Hornibrook’s instant recall can help him avoid even a few of the mistakes that killed Wisconsin drives last year and keep him firing touchdown passes, defenses may be helpless to stop the Badgers. And that might make all the difference.
A Random Ranking
The Winnie the Pooh tale gets a real-world twist in Christopher Robin, which hits theaters later this week. Ewan McGregor plays the all-grown-up Christopher Robin. So let’s rank the Winnie The Pooh characters.
8. Christopher Robin
*Brad Garrett—best known for playing the brother on Everybody Loves Raymond but truly awesome in the second season of I’m Dying Up Here—voices Eeyore in this movie. But the version of Eeyore that most of us would recognize is Peter Cullen’s. Who else does Peter Cullen voice? Optimus Prime.
Three And Out
1. You’ve probably read all about Ohio State’s firing of receivers coach Zach Smith last week. As SI’s Joan Neisen pointed out, there are still more questions that need to be answered. Those answers probably won’t come quickly. Back on the field, the Buckeyes have already replaced Smith. Former Ohio State receiver Brian Hartline, who rejoined the program last season as a coaching intern, will coach receivers this season.
2. Alabama has given coach Nick Saban a raise and a contract extension, which is a funny thing to type because after five national titles in nine seasons, shouldn’t Saban just have a lifetime contract that allows him to fill in his salary every year? In a universe of overpaid coaches, Saban might be the only one who—at $7.5 million a year and more than $10 million a year at the end of the contract—is actually underpaid.
3. You know I’m a sucker for a walk-on-gets-a-scholarship video. And now that I’m contemplating how much college will cost for my own children in about 10 years, I get an acute case of the feels when the player gets a scholarship at an ultra-expensive private school. So congratulations to Tulane receiver Brian Newman, who is coming off a torn ACL but could add a jolt of speed to an offense that should shock defenses that assume they’re facing a pure option team.
What’s Eating Andy?
I’m going to need to choose my media days destinations more carefully next season. Had I been smart enough to attend the Mountain West’s event last week, two things would have happened.
• I would have gotten a work trip to Vegas.
• I would have seen Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich being followed around by a Britney Spears impersonator.
What’s Andy Eating?
While I normally roll my eyes when a server says, “This is our version of [beloved classic dish that probably can’t be improved upon],” I do appreciate when a place nails the classic part and then, through experimentation, hits upon something amazing. That way, the people who want the familiar flavor and the ones who want to venture outside the norm can each leave satisfied.
Zoli’s Pizza and Pasta in Addison, Texas, gets the basics correct. Whether flat crust or Sicilian, the dough-cheese-tangy tomato sauce bases are covered. But the real fun is deeper down the menu on a pie called the Brian Luscher. Named after a Dallas chef, this pie substitutes sausage bolognese for tomato sauce and adds ricotta to balance out the flavor.
Bolognese is my favorite pasta sauce. Sausage, tomatoes and spices get turned into a sweet, spicy paste that clings perfectly to its carbohydrate accompaniment. Instead of the occasional huge bite of meat interspersed with bites of sauce and pasta, the meat distributes evenly across each noodle. If you serve pappardelle bolognese, I’m ordering it. Unless you put the bolognese on a pizza. Then I’m ordering that. I tacked pepperoni, soppressata and meatball onto a Sicilian Brian Luscher, and the result was a pie that packed more meat per square inch than any pizza I’d ever eaten before.
Bolognese spreads as effectively as plain tomato sauce. It’s tangy and sweet just like tomato sauce. It just contains more meat, which automatically makes it superior. Luckily for me, the diner seated next to me at the bar had ordered a thin crust Brian Luscher and offered to trade one slice of the thick for one slice of the thin. I had ordered the Sicilian because I had worried the bolognese would overwhelm a less substantial crust. It turns out my fears were unfounded. Zoli’s thin crust isn’t a glorified cracker. It has enough heft to handle any topping.
As delicious as either version is, you may struggle to make it to the pizza course. You’re going to want some Little Bastards, and those Little Bastards are going to make you forget that you need to save room for bolognese-sauced pizza. Little Bastards are crispy Brussels sprouts and cauliflower pieces tossed in bacon marmalade and slivered chiles. They are at once fresh, fiery, sweet and savory, and when you’ve devoured all the vegetables—don’t worry; after all this they’re probably not that good for you anymore—you’ll want to lick every drop of bacon marmalade out of the dish.
Resist this urge. You have meat sauce pizza coming, and you’ll want to finish every drop of that as well.