Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook made three clutch throws on third down in the third quarter that made the difference in a 24-10 victory against Michigan on Saturday.
Three clutch throws. That's all it takes in a game like this. No. 5 Wisconsin (11-0, 8-0) has a quarterback it can trust to make those throws. No. 24 Michigan (8-3, 5-3) is still looking for that guy. It's why third-year coach Paul Chryst is in the College Football Playoff hunt while Jim Harbaugh faces the same old criticisms.
That's the difference, and the Wolverines will keep looking after Brandon Peters left Saturday's game with a shoulder injury. That's the separation point between the two teams. Hornibrook made three clutch throws in a game that was tight up until that point.
Wisconsin trailed 10-7 and faced a third-and-13 with 4:41 left in the third quarter coming out of a timeout. Hornibrook roped a 51-yard wheel route to A.J. Taylor for a first down.
A few plays later, Hornibrook faced a third-and-16 from the 24-yard line. Instead of laying up for a field goal, Hornibrook stepped into a throw and fired a 24-yard strike to Taylor between two defenders for a touchdown. That gave the Badgers a lead they wouldn't give back.
On the next drive, Michigan forced a third-and-8 when Hornibrook threw a fade to Danny Davis, who hauled in a 27-yard reception with one arm. That set up the Badgers' next touchdown for a 21-10 lead with 34 seconds left in the third quarter.
That was ball game at that point. Why?
Peters was carted off the field after a hard hit on a third down in the drive that sandwiched those two touchdowns, and was replaced by John O'Korn.
Michigan's three-quarterback shuffle between those two and Wilton Speight has been the dominant theme in a three-loss season that ends at home against No. 6 Ohio State next week. Michigan is still spinning wheels at the game's most important position in Harbaugh's third season, and that showed even with Peters on the field. For the second straight year, the Wolverines go into the game against the Buckeyes with the status of their quarterback uncertain.
It's a situation where Michigan fans are disheartened the third-string quarterback went down, because the backup had to go back in. That's the state of affairs at quarterback right now.
Peters (9 of 18, 157 yards) had his moments, including on the touchdown drive in the first half that gave the Wolverines the lead. Michigan, however, couldn't establish a running game and couldn't take advantage of two drives in Wisconsin territory in the third quarter. And when Peters went down, the Badgers took advantage.
Hornibrook took advantage. Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor needed more carries in this game, but other than that, the Badgers finally scored a marquee victory over a Big Ten East opponent and will get another chance in the Big Ten conference championship game, likely against Ohio State.
Hornibrook, a sophomore, didn't finish with a great line against Michigan. He finished 9 of 19 for 147 yards and an interception, his 13th of the season. Hornibrook can't make those mistakes against Minnesota next week or in the Big Ten championship game.
Hornibrook, however, made the plays when he had to. It wasn't pretty, but pretty isn't the Badgers' style. Never has been.
Michigan? Who will be that guy next season? Speight, Peters or Dylan McCaffrey? It's the same question that was asked after a 41-13 loss to Penn State on Oct. 21, and the same question that gets asked every time Michigan falls on the big stage. It's a question the Wolverines desperately must answer in Year 4. Spinning wheels all over again.
You can search for the difference wherever you want. The running games are comparable, the defenses are similar and the coaches aren't all that different. Wisconsin has a better offense line and a quarterback who can make the big play at the right time.
That's why Wisconsin is in the hunt for the Big Ten championship for the second straight season.
And that's why Michigan is still looking.