MADISON, Wis. — One start into his college career, Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook has shown he can handle big-game pressure.
Hornibrook stood firm in the pocket and made third-down completions into tight coverage in the eighth-ranked Badgers’ win over Michigan State.
The stakes are only going to get higher this weekend at No. 4 Michigan.
“It’s really just confidence, being able to know that you can make those passes,” receiver Robert Wheelwright said about Hornibrook’s third-down throws.
Hornibrook’s poise and accuracy have stood out, especially for a redshirt freshman. Coach Paul Chryst, known as a quarterback guru and a stickler for preparation, also likes how Hornibrook gets ready for games.
“That takes time and there’s a lot that goes into it,” Chryst said. “It’s never-ending.”
All that work has paid off so far for Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten). A consistent passing game can make defenses think twice about stacking the box to stop lead running back Corey Clement.
Hornibrook was 16 of 26 for 195 yards with one touchdown and one interception in the 30-6 win over the Spartans. The offense was 7 of 16 on third downs.
Some of those conversions didn’t look easy.
On the first touchdown drive, Hornibrook found receiver Jazz Peavy for a 25-yard gain on third-and-10 from the Badgers 35. He hit well-covered tight end Troy Fumagalli to convert a third-and-2 later in the drive.
“I saw him throw one to Fumagalli, it’s a tight window, and it was like, ‘Dang, I see you,'” Wheelwright recounted on Tuesday about Hornibrook’s impressive throw.
Three plays later, Hornibrook found Wheelwright for a 9-yard gain on third down to get to the Michigan State 3. The Badgers then converted the second of two successful fourth-down tries on the drive to set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Eric Steffes.
“He put them in a perfect spot,” Peavy said. “It feels just like practice most of the time when they look that easy like that. I wouldn’t say they’re tough at all.”
It could go smoother if Wisconsin could get into shorter third-down situations. It’s a crucial goal on the road on Saturday against the Wolverines, who are holding opponents to just 12 percent on third-down conversions.
But if it’s a third-and-long, Wisconsin has shown that it can convert, too. Now that Hornibrook has proven that he can make those critical throws under pressure, receivers know they might have a little more leeway if their timing is a bit off.
“Just knowing sometimes you might not always get your depth, or you might not always be exactly where you need to be, but if you have good timing and good chemistry, you can still find those holes,” Wheelwright said. “Just knowing that you can be off a little bit and still make a pass.”
AP freelance writer Dennis Semrau contributed to this story.
AP College Football: http://collegefootball.ap.org/
Follow Genaro Armas at: https://twitter.com/GArmasAP