MADISON, Wis. — Alex Hornibrook isn’t listening to your criticism. He isn’t checking his Twitter mentions, scouring message boards or scrolling through Facebook comments. And he certainly isn’t reading this story.
Hornibrook, Wisconsin’s sophomore quarterback, understands why there have been complaints about his performance in recent weeks. He has thrown 9 interceptions this season, which is the third-most among Big Ten quarterbacks and tied for 11th most in the FBS. But Hornibrook isn’t about to spend time concerning himself with outside opinions, which take the focus off winning football games and detract from his ability to improve.
“The point is it doesn’t really matter what other people are saying,” Hornibrook said Tuesday after practice. “The only thing that matters for us when we’re playing is the people in that locker room, the coaches. So when you hear stuff from the outside, it doesn’t really make a difference to what you’re doing.”
That approach has served Hornibrook well this season while playing a position that is scrutinized as much as any in sports. His ability to quickly respond from his mistakes has perhaps gone less noticed than the mistakes themselves. As a result, Hornibrook has won 15 consecutive games as a starting quarterback, which represents the longest active streak in the FBS.
Hornibrook will attempt to earn his 16th straight victory as a starter when Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) plays host to Iowa (6-3, 3-3) at 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
Many detractors have suggested that Hornibrook has benefitted from merely being the product of a Wisconsin system that thrives on strong play from its offensive line and running backs and requires little from its quarterback. Hornibrook’s predecessor at quarterback, Joel Stave, received the same criticism despite winning a school-record 31 games as a starter.
There is no question the Badgers running game has been a strength for years. Hornibrook, like Stave, has his limitations on the field. But teammates say that to suggest Stave and now Hornibrook — who is 16-2 overall as a starter — haven’t contributed to the team’s success would be inaccurate.
“That’s kind of like the unsung quarterback ever since I’ve been here,” Badgers tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “Joel’s got the most wins. And those guys don’t get enough credit, I don’t think. Regardless of what happens in the game, at the end of the day they’re winning football games. That’s what they’re asked to do.”
Hornibrook’s numbers beyond the interceptions show a quarterback who has actually developed into one of the better playmakers in the Big Ten. His pass-efficiency rating of 158.3 ranks second in the Big Ten behind Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and No. 12 in the FBS.
Hornibrook’s 64.4 percent completion rate ranks fourth in the Big Ten behind Barrett, Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey and Purdue’s David Blough. That mark also ranks No. 26 in the nation. Hornibrook has thrown for 1,728 yards with 15 touchdowns.
“I think we hear a lot about rankings and complaining about Alex,” Badgers fullback Alec Ingold said. “It’s so far out of this camp’s mantra and what we’re talking about that it’s kind of funny to see some guys talking about that and seeing what everyone else has to say. But when everyone’s here, it’s so far out of our picture that it’s all right.”
Alex Hornibrook’s game-by-game stats this season
Hornibrook’s ability to focus after throwing an interception has been one of the keys to Wisconsin’s first 9-0 start in 13 years. He 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 completed 6 of 7 passes for 128 yards with a touchdown to shift the momentum to Wisconsin.
He was intercepted for a touchdown against Nebraska, which tied the score at 17-17 in the third quarter. Hornibrook responded by throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to receiver Quintez Cephus, and the Badgers never gave up the lead again.
Three weeks ago, he bounced back from an early interception against Maryland and a subsequent fumble from tailback Jonathan Taylor. Hornibrook completed 9 of 11 passes over two drives for 2 touchdown passes to put Wisconsin in front 21-3 at halftime.
And following a first-quarter interception against Indiana last week, he completed all four of his passes on a second-quarter drive for 67 yards with an 18-yard touchdown to Ingold.
“When that happens, he’s frustrated,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said of Hornibrook’s interceptions. “He doesn’t want to do that. But I think that he’s done a nice job of bouncing back, being mentally tough as much as physically. I thought he showed really good toughness last game in both those areas. Just because he does do a good job moving on is not to say that it doesn’t bother him.”
Added Hornibrook: “I think everybody’s got to be able to do that. If you make one mistake, you can’t make the exact same mistake again or you’re not learning. Mine are probably more visible, but everybody’s doing that on the team.”
One important factor to consider is that not every interception is created equally. And with so many moving parts on the field, those mistakes aren’t always solely on Hornibrook.
During Wisconsin’s 17-9 victory against Purdue on Oct. 14, Hornibrook threw 2 interceptions. Purdue cornerback Dedrick Mackey intercepted Hornibrook early in the second quarter. But it appeared as though Badgers wide receiver Danny Davis didn’t properly finish his route, remaining outside instead of cutting inside on the pass. Later in the game, Hornibrook threw an inside screen in traffic to running back Rachid Ibrahim, who bobbled the ball and lost it to Purdue’s Danny Ezechukwu.
Last week during Wisconsin’s 45-17 victory against Indiana, the Badgers faced a third-and-goal at the 6-yard line. Hornibrook was under pressure on his blind side from Indiana defensive end Jacob Robinson, who moved past left tackle David Edwards. Hornibrook was hit as he released the pass, which Hoosiers linebacker Tegray Scales intercepted in the end zone.
“I’ve got to do a better job of giving him more time,” Edwards said. “The play is designed to be a three-step, get it out quick, but I was a little bit late getting off. That shouldn’t have happened, and I thought that was on me.”
Hornibrook will face one of his most significant challenges this season against Iowa’s secondary. When Iowa crushed then-No. 6 Ohio State 55-24 last week, Barrett threw 4 interceptions. Before the game, he had only thrown 1 interception the entire season.
Hawkeyes defensive back Amani Hooker returned an interception for a touchdown, and defensive back Josh Jackson recorded the other 3 interceptions. Jackson’s 5 interceptions this season lead the Big Ten. In total, Iowa has registered 13 interceptions, which ranks second in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin’s 14.
Hornibrook doesn’t need to hear from others about the importance of cutting down on turnovers. He will spend the week ignoring those comments and studying Iowa’s tendencies to play the best game he can on Saturday. After all, that’s the only thing within his control.
“He’s his biggest critic,” Ingold said. “He’s in the film room more than anyone else. He sees it more than anyone else. He definitely is making corrections. I think you see that he’s not making the same interception twice, so you know he’s working through it, and the offense is working through it as well. He’s doing a good job.”
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