After a dismal opening two quarters for the University of Wisconsin football team’s offense on Saturday afternoon, Alex Hornibrook sought out one of his playmakers.
“Let’s go, let’s make some plays and let’s take over the game,” Badgers sophomore wide receiver Quintez Cephus said of the message he received from his quarterback at halftime.
It didn’t take long for Hornibrook and Cephus to take action. They hooked up for a long pass early in the third quarter, a play that awoke the offense from its slumber and flipped the momentum in a tight game.
The Hornibrook-to-Cephus connection set up a touchdown run by freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor that gave the No. 10 Badgers the lead for good en route to a 33-24 victory over Northwestern at Camp Randall Stadium. It sparked a stretch in which UW produced two touchdowns and a field goal in a span of four possessions to turn a three-point deficit into a comfortable lead.
“I think we just started executing,” Hornibrook said. “There was a little fire lit under us after that first half wasn’t going so well for us, and we were able to turn it around.”
How bad was the first half for Hornibrook and the offense? The Badgers turned the ball over three times and generated only 114 total yards, with Hornibrook going 5 of 11 for 48 yards with two interceptions in the opening two quarters.
Hornibrook bounced back by going 5 of 6 for 116 yards in the third quarter. Each of UW’s three scoring drives in the second half featured an explosive pass play: the 61-yarder to Cephus; a 32-yarder to Danny Davis in which the freshman wide receiver avoided multiple Northwestern defenders; and a 33-yard connection with sophomore A.J. Taylor early in the fourth quarter.
While those explosive plays helped UW avoid a defeat in its Big Ten Conference opener, they didn’t completely mask a shaky performance by Hornibrook. The sophomore finished 11 of 20 for 197 yards, continuing a trend of inconsistent play through the first four games of the season.
In victories over Utah State and BYU, Hornibrook has completed 33 of 42 passes for 500 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. In wins over Florida Atlantic and Northwestern, he was 27 of 48 for 398 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
“I like the way that he plays the game,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “He takes it one play at a time. I’ve said this every game about him: I felt like there were some areas that were really good that he’ll continue to build upon. There are going to be some learning moments. He’ll do that, and that’s what you appreciate.”
Both of Hornibrook’s interceptions were on deep passes in which he had a receiver in a one-on-one situation. He overthrew Davis on a third-and-16 early in the second quarter and was picked off by Wildcats freshman safety JR Pace. Later in the quarter, Hornibrook lofted a pass over the middle that was intended for Kyle Penniston, but Northwestern safety Godwin Igwebuike outworked the UW sophomore tight end and came up with the ball.
Hornibrook took the blame for both picks. He also declined to use a pair of excuses that could have helped explain his shaky first half.
UW was without senior tight end Troy Fumagalli (leg injury), who leads the team with 15 catches for 236 yards, against Northwestern. But Hornibrook refused to use that as a crutch.
Hornibrook also sprained his knee after getting sacked early in the second quarter, but he said after the game the injury didn’t affect his performance.
“It was all me, just the way I was playing,” Hornibrook said. “Whether in the first half, it was just making the reads more simple in my head, just going through stuff quicker. Once people started making plays, it started to turn out better for us.”
The spark that got things going came on the UW offense’s third play of the second half. Northwestern’s safeties had been charging into the box for much of the game to offer run support, and they bit on a play-action fake to tailback Chris James.
The pass from Hornibrook was by no means perfect, but it didn’t have to be because Cephus was wide open after easily beating his man. The result — UW’s longest pass play of the season — was exactly what Hornibrook had in mind when he chatted with Cephus at halftime.
“It was a time when we needed to make a play,” Cephus said. “Somebody had to stop the bleeding. Alex trusted me, and we made that play.”