TALLAHASSEE — Florida State’s former quarterbacks of the future cycled through Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday night.
James Blackman was on the sidelines, still nursing the knee injury he suffered last week. One-time commit Sam Howell was on video-board highlights after nearly leading undermanned North Carolina to an upset of No. 1 Clemson as a true freshman. Former recruiting target Justin Fields flashed on the screen as his Buckeyes trounced Nebraska. And on the field, North Carolina State was taking the lead behind another scoring drive by ex-Seminoles backup Bailey Hockman.
But instead of thinking about what could have been, FSU should focus on what it clearly has after its 31-13 win over the Wolfpack: A fully capable veteran keeping the program afloat.
Alex Hornibrook threw a pair of first-half touchdown passes and recorded a career-high 312 yards to help the Seminoles (3-2, 2-1 ACC) earn back-to-back conference wins for the first time since November 2016.
“I always knew he had it in him, ever since he first got here,” receiver Tamorrion Terry said.
It’s hard to overstate how important it was that Hornibrook got here as a grad transfer from Wisconsin.
In February, FSU became the second Power Five program in the last decade to finish back-to-back recruiting classes without signing a quarterback. Taggart had seen Howell flip to North Carolina in December, then watched another four-star target (Lance LeGendre) turn down FSU for … Maryland.
Besides the rail-thin Blackman, FSU’s only other scholarship quarterback was Jordan Travis, a Louisville transfer whose immediate eligibility was still in question. The situation was bleak.
Then Hornibrook came.
The lefty didn’t star at Wisconsin, but he didn’t throw games away, either. The Badgers went 26-6 in his 32 starts, including an Orange Bowl triumph over Miami. He looked like a solid FSU insurance policy, if nothing else.
Five games into the season, Hornibrook is more than that. He’s a stabilizing force for a program that’s still, to put it politely, a work in progress. He threw the go-ahead touchdown pass last week against Louisville and was even more impressive Saturday against the Wolfpack (3-2, 0-1), in front of an announced crowd of 60,351.
Hornibrook didn’t learn he was starting until shortly before kickoff, when FSU ruled Blackman out. And he found himself in a 6-3 hole with six minutes left in the half.
Hornibrook responded quickly. He hit Terry on a third-down slant that turned into a 43-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
On the next drive, Hornibrook lofted a gorgeous 39-yard bomb to Ontaria Wilson for another score. He added another touchdown pass late in the third quarter with a 9-yard lob to Terry.
In the face of a near-constant pass rush that sacked him a program-record eight times, Hornibrook showed the poise and resilience his teammates are still learning.
“What impressed me so much is, he never stopped,” Terry said. “He kept getting sacked and things like that. He never gave up.”
Hornibrook also made the simple plays within the system that win games.
He didn’t force many throws or commit a turnover. He just delivered the ball to FSU’s plentiful playmakers in space and let them do the rest.
“We’ve got a lot of athletes out there,” said Hornibrook, who finished 29-of-40 in his first FSU start. “My job is to get them the ball.”
He succeeded; 10 different Seminoles caught passes Saturday.
It’s easy to nitpick Hornibrook for what he wasn’t at Wisconsin, and what he won’t be in his only year at FSU. He doesn’t have Blackman’s arm strength. Or Fields’ running ability. Or Howell’s long-term upside.
And his presence isn’t a cure-all for FSU’s program-wide woes. Taggart still has a long way to go to get his program back in the championship hunt, even in a bad ACC.
But without Hornibrook, the ’Noles would be entering this open date 2-3, if not 1-4. With him, they’re on track for a bowl game.
His Seminoles are fragile and, as Taggart likes to say, still learning how to win. After Saturday, it’s clear that they have a strong quarterback around to teach them.
“He’s a veteran,” Taggart said. “He understands what it takes, and I guess it’s going throughout our football team.”