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Film Room: Breaking down an improved Alex Hornibrook and Wisconsin’s passing attack

The Badgers throw the ball downfield now.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Brigham Young Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers have looked like a Playoff contender through the first three games of the year, riding a top-five defense and an improved offensive attack to a 3-0 record.

Year in and year out, the Badger offense is led by a bruising line and a host of running backs who shorten games by running the ball down the opponent’s throat. You’re still going to see plenty of that on first and second down with stud freshman Jonathan Taylor. Yet Wisconsin has demonstrated a newfound explosiveness this year, due largely to the development of sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook. A year after managing a 9:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Hornibrook is now among the most efficient quarterbacks in the country. He’s the owner of the third-best QBR in the FBS, and has thrown eight touchdowns against one interception through three games. Against BYU, the southpaw went 18-19 (the lone incompletion was a drop) for 256 yards and four touchdowns.

Granted, the Badgers have faced three below-average to bad defenses, but Hornibrook has shown marked improvement in the throws he has been able to make and his ability to manage the pocket. His ability to throw the deep ball adds another dimension to Wisconsin’s offense.

Here’s a more detailed look at what Hornibrook and the Badgers will look to do on passing downs come Saturday.

The Badgers are dangerous on third down

Much of Wisconsin’s offensive success early this season has come from their ability to keep opposing defenses on the field. The Badgers have converted 22 of 38 third downs, good for the second-best clip in the country behind TCU. Moreover, Hornibrook and the Wisconsin passing attack has thrived in third and long scenarios. The sophomore is 12 of 15 for 161 yards and two touchdowns on third and six or longer. Overall, Hornibrook is 18 for 23 for 241 yards and three touchdowns on third down, including a perfect 8 of 8 against BYU.

The Badgers have a bevy of talented targets in the passing game, and with plenty of time in the pocket on passing downs, Hornibrook has been able to pick defenses apart. On the other hand, Northwestern ranks 113th in third-down defense, and will need a big day from its secondary to stymie the Badger offense.

On this third and seven against BYU, Hornibrook looks off his primary receiver on the strong side of the field before delivering a strike to Quintez Cephus. Hornibrook places the ball away from the BYU defender as Wisconsin converts another third and long on its way to scoring just before the half ends.

In Wisconsin’s opener versus Utah State, Hornibrook made one of his best throws of the season on a third and six near the end of the third quarter. Utah State brings six defenders and Wisconsin’s line gets pushed back into the pocket. Right about here, Hornibrook knows he’s going to get popped after making this throw.

Regardless, he recognizes single coverage on the outside and lofts a perfect back-shoulder throw to Cephus for a touchdown.

That’s a throw you probably don’t see Hornibrook convert last season, and another reason third downs are going to be much more difficult for the Wildcat defense on Saturday.

Wisconsin is going to go vertical

In passing downs, Wisconsin will often opt for a four-wide set. However, the Badgers love to use their tight ends vertically to create mismatches in space. At 6-foot-6 and 248 pounds, Troy Fumagalli creates matchup nightmares. The senior has become a favorite target of Hornibrook’s, snagging 15 balls for 236 yards and three touchdowns so far.

Fumagalli is bigger than pretty much every defender he’s matched up against (even 6-foot-4, 245 pound middle linebackers like Paddy Fisher), but he also has the athleticism to create space, like in this clip against Florida Atlantic. With the smaller defensive back on his outside shoulder, Fumagalli cuts towards the middle of the field, where Hornibrook finds him for a big gain.

Unleashing Fumagalli downfield has been a big weapon for the Badgers, especially in the red zone. On another third and long, Wisconsin runs four verticals, and Hornibrook delivers a dart to Fumagalli just as two defenders close in around him for the touchdown.

Kyle Queiro (6-foot-3) may frequently draw the Fumagalli assignment, which isn’t a complete mismatch for Northwestern, but expect the Badgers to get creative in order to involve their big tight end in the game plan.

Getting to Hornibrook will be key for Northwestern

While Hornibrook has only been sacked twice since the first series of the season, he has also has displayed the ability to sense pressure and step up in the pocket.

Nonetheless, the southpaw has made mistakes under duress, and this represents Northwestern’s best opportunity to slow the Wisconsin offense. Hornibrook’s only interception of the season came under duress against Florida Atlantic. A miscommunication along the offensive line led to an unblocked defender right in Hornibrook’s face.

Hornibrook never sees the linebacker dropping into coverage and the ensuing throw becomes an easy interception.

First and second down are obviously important, but if I’m Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, I’m most worried about third down. Should Hankwitz choose to bring five or six pass rushers, Northwestern’s thin secondary will be challenged by the size and athleticism of Wisconsin’s skill players, especially Fumagalli and Cephus. Should Hankwitz bring four defenders, Hornibrook will have plenty of time to look for holes in the zone and leverage his ability to complete intermediate passes accurately. On the road at Camp Randall, the Wildcats will need some big defensive plays — ideally a competent pass rush and a couple turnovers — to keep their defense off the field, slow Hornibrook’s momentum, and let the offense do its thing.