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Hornibrook and Coan-passing game

Alex Hornibrook (12) and Jack Coan, rear, have combined for 125 completions in 210 attempts (59.5 percent) for 1,565 yards and 13 touchdowns. Hornibrook has been intercepted eight times.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa.  Kendric Pryor needed to search for the right words when trying to describe what’s gone awry with the University of Wisconsin’s passing game this season.

The sophomore wide receiver paused for more than 10 seconds when asked about the subject this week, unable to answer a question fans, media, players and coaches have tried solving since UW began the season with lofty expectations for an offense with a three-year starting quarterback, a talented group of wideouts and a budding star at tight end.

“That's kind of, that’s a little hard to ... yeah, I don’t really know how to explain that,” Pryor said.

With just three games remaining in the regular season and UW’s Big Ten West hopes hanging by a thread, Saturday’s game at Penn State may serve as the final chance for the Badgers to show their passing game still holds the potential to meet the high standards they placed on themselves.

It was Pryor who revealed earlier this year that UW’s 7-on-7 group — quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends — set a preseason goal throwing 35 passing touchdowns, which would break a school record set in 2011, the year Russell Wilson led the Badgers to a Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl berth.

With just 14 through nine games, UW’s barely on pace to reach 20 — numbers that wide receiver A.J. Taylor said he wouldn’t have believed in August.

“I would have been like, ‘Oh, no. No, no, no. We can do this,’” Taylor said. “These next few games you don’t know what can happen. I’m still holding onto it. ... We’re not going to give up yet.

“Whenever you have high expectations and fall short, it’s tough. But that’s life, and you’ve just got to keep going. You’ve got to keep moving forward."

UW may need to move forward without starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who suffered his second concussion in three games in the Badgers’ win over Rutgers last week. He’s listed as questionable, leaving sophomore Jack Coan to potentially make his second career start in a hostile environment at Beaver Stadium.

Coan completed 20-of-31 passes for 158 yards with one touchdown and a lost fumble two weeks ago at Northwestern as Hornibrook healed from his first concussion. After Hornibrook’s head slammed against the turf on a sack to end the second quarter against Rutgers last week, Coan threw for 64 yards and a touchdown in the second half.

If he starts Saturday, Coan could face an atmosphere he’s yet to experience in his career.

"Going into places like Nebraska and Iowa, even when I wasn’t playing, I just tried to put myself in Alex’s situation,” Coan said. “I feel like I was definitely a little more comfortable this past game than the Northwestern one, just having that confidence of playing in a game before. That was the biggest thing."

Along with the low touchdown total, UW quarterbacks’ 58.3 completion rate is almost five percentage points lower than last season, and the Badgers are averaging nearly 20 less passing yards per game.

It doesn’t help that the Badgers’ top wide receiver from last season, Quintez Cephus, has missed the entire season. He’s currently suspended and awaiting trail on second- and third-degree sexual assault charges. Sophomore wideout Danny Davis also served a two-game suspension to begin the season after a criminal complaint became public that stated he was in the apartment at the time of the alleged assault and took photos of the women involved.

UW didn’t miss a beat after Cephus broke his right leg at Indiana last season, though. Over the final five games of last year without Cephus, the Badgers’ passing game came through on multiple occasions. Taylor caught a 24-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter that shifted momentum in a win over Michigan, and Hornibrook completed 23-of-34 passes for 258 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in an Orange Bowl victory over Miami.

"I think (Cephus) not being here with us, I think Danny missing some time on the front end, I think Alex missing some time, I think all that contributes a little bit,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "And yet, you still have a chance to be more consistent than we’ve been.

“(The passing game) has got to be a factor for us. We’re obviously a better team and more balanced than we are, and we’re going to keep working on it."

Rudolph said Davis, Taylor and Pryor aren’t short on talent, and “it’s not like opportunities aren’t drawn up” for them. It’s just not clicking consistently for whatever reason. Redshirt freshman tight end Jake Ferguson has also provided another true threat on third down.

Protection hasn’t been an issue, either. UW’s offensive line continues to improve in both the run and pass game, and the Badgers have allowed just 13 sacks this season, tied for the third-fewest in the Big Ten.

UW’s produced some positive moments in the passing game. Hornibrook completed 17-of-22 passes at Iowa to open conference play, including 5 for 5 on an 88-yard, go-ahead drive in which he threw a fired a 17-yard pass to Taylor in the game’s final minute.

The Badgers, however, haven’t reached that level with any type of consistency.

“Definitely not what we wanted, but I think there’s little slivers of what we want to see,” Ferguson said. "We’ve got plenty of time these next three games to show what we’ve got. I’m excited because I truly believe we can show what we’ve got and get to our full potential. ... I know the receivers are excited, and I’m real excited, too."

Plenty of factors were at play in what’s transpired as a disappointing season thus far for the Badgers, who are unranked after beginning the season No. 4 in the AP poll and holding preseason expectations of a possible College Football Playoff berth.

Among those lofty aspirations came the assumption that UW’s offense would take a sizable step forward with 10 starters returning, including a passing game led by an experienced quarterback surrounded by plenty of capable weapons.

While those hopes haven’t materialized, the Badgers’ weapons in the passing game — regardless of who’s under center — won’t accept that the story of their season’s reached its conclusion.

"November is what people remember,” Pryor said. "People remember November in college football a lot, and November’s where teams either stay the same, get worse or you’re going to grow. ... At the beginning of the season, we thought (35 passing touchdowns) was a goal we could accomplish. Even though things may not be going that way where you can accomplish it, we still can just get better.

"I feel like there’s still a lot of football left. We still have a lot of ball left to turn it around."

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Jason Galloway is the Wisconsin Badgers football beat writer for the Wisconsin State Journal.