MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The last pass Alex Hornibrook threw before Saturday’s Capital One Orange Bowl found the hands of Ohio State‘s Damon Webb, ending Wisconsin‘s hopes of a Big Ten title and a playoff berth.
Twenty-seven days later, Hornibrook looked like a completely different player, and in a game in which Badgers star running back Jonathan Taylor set a freshman record for rushing, it was the beleaguered sophomore QB who stole the show.
Hornibrook completed 23 of 34 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns against Miami’s stout defense, utterly unraveling the Hurricanes on third down, and carried the load for the Badgers’ offense in a 34-24 Orange Bowl win over the Hurricanes. In the aftermath, he hoisted the Orange Bowl trophy, with a handful of oranges tumbling out. It was the only mistake he made all night.
“I thought he was really good,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said succinctly.
Hornibrook was a bit more verbose, but not much.
“They were playing a lot of man coverage, and those guys were winning their matchups, so it wasn’t too hard for me,” he said. “I guess we got lucky, and I didn’t throw any picks.”
Previously against Ohio State, Hornibrook looked lost at times, completing less than half his passes and throwing two interceptions. There were no signs of those struggles Saturday. He decimated the Canes’ D, completing 7 of 10 passes on third down for 85 yards and a touchdown on third down en route to game MVP honors.
Taylor was hardly a sideshow. He racked up 143 total yards of offense and, in the process, rushed past Adrian Peterson to set the FBS rushing record for freshmen.
Miami certainly did its share to help Wisconsin’s cause. Kicker Michael Badgley missed two field goal attempts. Quarterback Malik Rosier threw three picks, including one in the end zone and another on Miami’s final drive. Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after he grabbed and shoved an official in a furor over a lack of holding calls against Wisconsin.
It was an ugly finish to a season of progress for Miami.
The turnover chain was slung around corner Dee Delaney‘s neck on the first drive of the game, but Delaney ended up watching as one of Hornibrook’s passes sailed out of his reach and into the arms of Danny Davis for Wisconsin’s first touchdown. By game’s end, it was the Badgers celebrating myriad takeaways from the struggling Miami offense, and Badgers corner Nick Nelson wore a homemade chain of his own around his neck, held together with athletic tape with a sparkling Wisconsin “W” painted in glitter.
“I just saw somebody had it on, and I said, ‘Let me wear it,'” he said, beaming.
Richt, normally as affable as any coach, was livid throughout the game, angry at the lack of calls from officials, including what appeared to be a clear hold of Braxton Berrios on Rosier’s second interception. When asked about the altercation with the officiating crew at halftime, Richt simply told ESPN sideline reporter Molly McGrath to “watch the tape.” After Miami finished the regular season a perfect 7-0 at home, it blew a 14-3 lead in what was essentially another home game.
The Canes, who reached No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings after getting to 10-0, ended the season with three straight losses and questions about their future at quarterback. Rosier set the school record for touchdowns in the game but also showcased why so many Miami fans hope there’s an alternative at the position for 2018.
Richt offered little insight about the QB situation for 2018 but paced the Miami locker room after the game, shaking hands and reminding players, “We’ll get better.”
“It’s an obstacle, definitely, but I don’t think it’s a step back,” defensive tackle RJ McIntosh said. “It’s something we have to learn from. In order to have a bright future, we need to learn how to not have these stretches of losses.”
For Wisconsin, there’s no doubt about who will be at QB next season.
Hornibrook endured his share of growing pains this season, but the Orange Bowl felt like a turning point. The extra bowl practices clearly worked wonders, and a backfield tandem with Taylor next season would make Wisconsin a clear favorite to win the Big Ten West once again.
It was a fond sendoff for Derrick Tindal, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native who picked off that Rosier pass in the end zone.
It was a stellar finish for the Badgers, who upended Miami on its home turf, with the one quarter of the stadium clad in red remaining as the final seconds ticked off the clock of a 13-1 season.
At Miami, the turnover chain will be back next season. So, too, will a stout defense. But the talk of the Canes reviving their glory years was still premature.
At Wisconsin, the best season in program history was also among the least appreciated nationally.
“I don’t think anyone’s done it as quietly,” Chryst said of the 13-win campaign.
But 2018 won’t be quiet. Taylor will be a Heisman candidate from the outset. Davis, another freshman, had three of Hornibrook’s touchdown throws Saturday. And the QB proved he belongs.
“He blew it up,” lineman Michael Balistreri said of Hornibrook. “He has grown a lot. Even throughout the season, he’s grown. He’s matured. It’ll be fun to watch him next year. He’s going to do some great things.”