EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The first pass attempt in Alex Hornibrook's first career start for Wisconsin unfolded like this: His team faced third-and-11 from its own 15-yard line. The Michigan State crowd roared, and the Spartans defense was ready to bring the heat. As Hornibrook took the snap and dropped into the pocket, All-America defensive lineman Malik McDowell came running free at him.
Hornibrook stepped up and delivered a strike to tight end Troy Fumagalli for the first down, right before McDowell leveled him.
"That was pretty fun," Hornibrook said of that play after the game.
That reaction says a lot about what the Badgers have in their new starting quarterback. Teammates and coaches described the redshirt freshman as unflappable and preternaturally calm. He showed that last Saturday in the 30-6 win at Michigan State, especially while repeatedly coming through in the clutch on third downs. And it's why Hornibrook won't get easily rattled in his next difficult assignment: at No. 4 Michigan this Saturday.
"He's very poised back there," running back Corey Clement said. "He didn't really get shaken up at all. You've got to have respect for a guy who does that in his first start against Michigan State's defense."
First start, on the road against a Top 10 team and a ferocious defense? Hornibrook said last week felt like "just another football game." He said he slept well Friday night after watching the movie "Jason Bourne" in his hotel room with roommate Alec Ingold. Before the game on Saturday, he went through his pregame ritual of listening to country artist George Strait's album "50 Number Ones."
"Gets me nice and calm," he said.
Hornibrook lost a fumble on the game's first drive. Instead of getting flustered, he asked assistant coach Jon Budmayr on the sideline what the defensive coverage was on that play and where he should have thrown it.
"You couldn't tell anything had happened," said Ingold, the team's starting fullback. "That he was ready to come back and score all these points spoke volumes about his character."
Hornibrook's one slipup in the week before the Michigan State game came on Tuesday. He inadvertently confirmed to reporters that he had been named the starter, before head coach Paul Chryst had officially announced the move. He knew he'd messed up when he saw reporters looking at each other. Hornibrook went over to confer with the Wisconsin communications staff and then returned to finish the interview.
Other than that, though, his mistakes have been few. Hornibrook lost out on a close offseason competition with senior Bart Houston, and he did not get on the field for the opening win over LSU. He made his career debut during mop-up duty in Week 2 against Akron, then relieved a struggling Houston to help prevent a Week 3 disaster against Georgia State. He has completed 67 percent of his passes so far this season.
"Originally, going into fall camp I wanted to make sure we had two quarterbacks who could play," Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. "There wasn't a huge separation. ... We're going to need both across the season.
"The thing I appreciated from [Hornibrook against Michigan State] was that he was himself. He didn't have any out-of-body experience. He works so he could trust his preparation."
Teammates describe Hornibrook as a football junkie who studies the game intensely.
"He doesn't say anything more than he needs to say," Ingold said. "He's very direct with his cadence and play calling. He looks guys in the eyes and expects everybody else to trust him.
"You can tell that, when pressure situations happen, he knows where the ball is supposed to go. He knows his reads and it doesn't faze him."
Those traits really showed up on third downs last week. In those situations against the Spartans, Hornibrook went 9-for-12 for 136 yards and a touchdown. That included a 6-for-6 performance on third-and-10 or longer. On the season, he's 18-for-22 for 279 yards on third downs.
His most impressive third-down play came in the third quarter. On third-and-8, he threaded a perfect pass to a tightly covered Jazz Peavy on a corner route for a 31-yard gain. Hornibrook said he knew exactly what defense the Spartans would bring on that play.
"Right on the money," Peavy said of the throw. "It felt like practice."
The 6-foot-4 lefthander appears to have the right skill sets and the perfect temperament for the similarly unruffled Chryst's offense. Hornibrook's father, Jeff, played football at Temple, and his uncle, Ben Davis, was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1995 Major League Baseball draft. Hornibrook inherited not only those athletic gifts but also the confidence that comes with them.
"Alex always had control of the situation," said Aaron Brady, Hornibrook's high school coach at Malvern (Pa.) Prep. "He just has that air about him. He can be assertive and take over and be a leader."
Brady compared Hornibrook to former four-year Stanford starting quarterback Kevin Hogan, whom Brady also coached in high school. He said some college coaches who came to scout Hornibrook were originally leery of recruiting a left-handed quarterback. But after spending just a few minutes with him, Brady said, they were all sold.
Hornibrook committed to Pitt when Chryst was still the head coach there but decided to follow him to Madison in 2015. This could be the start of a long and fruitful on-field partnership.
"He's just getting his feet wet," Clement said.