Wisconsin's incumbent at quarterback, Joel Stave, has a total of minus-73 yards rushing over the past two seasons. Yet, Stave's lack of ideal mobility probably won't stop the Badgers from using at least a few option plays this season.
MADISON, Wis. — You won’t see Wisconsin’s football team suddenly abandon years of pro-style offensive schemes on Saturdays this fall. Certainly, the play script that helped create dominant lines and running backs banging between the tackles isn’t going anywhere. But that doesn’t mean the Badgers’ system can’t come with a few tweaks.
One of those tweaks has been the installation of some option plays, which is among the most interesting developments to take place through the first two weeks of fall camp. It isn’t something Wisconsin is likely to use much, but it also provides another element defenses need to prepare for, particularly with quarterback Tanner McEvoy vying for playing time alongside incumbent starter Joel Stave.
Stave, of course, is the pocket passer who has shown a more consistent arm this fall. McEvoy, meanwhile, is the dual-threat signal caller who, at the very least, will be used in certain packages behind Stave during games. As a quarterback at Arizona Western College, McEvoy ran for 414 yards, while Stave has a total of minus-73 yards rushing over the past two seasons at Wisconsin.
Badgers defensive end Konrad Zagzebski has seen the option up close for the past two weeks during fall camp and noted the difficulty in trying to stop it.
"It’s a double-headed monster," Zagzebski said. "You’ve got a great offensive line. Then you have a great running back in Melvin Gordon. And then you throw the option on there with that, so now you’ve got to be extremely disciplined in what you’re doing. Those three things put together make it really hard to stop. Our offense is doing a good job running it right now."
The option is no doubt an intriguing scheme as part of Wisconsin’s offense, particularly for a team that has traditionally relied on power runs. Both Stave and McEvoy have been seen at practice running various forms of the option, though it would seem unlikely Stave will be included in those plans.
Stave, for his part, sounded confident he could at least handle the pitch aspect of the option if called upon.
"Would I call it my bread and butter?" Stave said. "No. But I feel like that’s something I can do. All I need is a defensive end to come and smack me and I can pitch it to Melvin. It’s only three, four steps and just get it out. So yeah, I think that’s something I can do."
Plenty of work remains for Wisconsin in the option game. During Monday’s practice, for example, McEvoy’s option pitch to Gordon around the right side was fumbled.
Gordon, a redshirt junior and preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, said he had no problem working in an offense that incorporates the option, which Wisconsin has yet to do since he has been with the program. Gordon has experienced great success running on the edges and finding open space in previous years, particularly out of the jet sweep. He and backup Corey Clement already form perhaps the most formidable 1-2 running back tandem in college football, even without the option.
Gordon noted his high school team primarily ran the option, so he is used to the scheme. But he also said there is an adjustment period to avoid fumbling pitches away.
"I just am trying to take off," he said. "I’m so focused on sprinting down the field, I’m not looking the ball in. It’s just the little things you’ve got to do. You’ve got to look the ball in and then sprint. It’s wide open, so you just see it, you’re trying to hit it and go. You know the defense closes fast. I’ve just got to look the ball in. But I’ve been doing it since high school."
Even during Saturday’s practice — one of the final practices open to the media this fall — the team incorporated some option into its 11-on-11 work. No. 3 running back Taiwan Deal took an option pitch left from McEvoy on one series, and he carried an option pitch right from quarterback DJ Gillins later in practice.
Badgers offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig declined to talk specifically about the team’s scheme, though he did say the installation of something new presents unique challenges.
"But we want to make sure that we’re running an offense, just not a collection of plays," Ludwig said. "What we’re doing systematically, it all fits within the system and we don’t want to deviate from that system."
McEvoy has proven to be effective in various parts of the option game thus far. During the team’s scrimmage last Sunday, he took an option keeper 10 yards for a first down on one series, and he’s been responsible for making decisions on the read option in a couple other instances.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen recognizes that, if Wisconsin wants to be more dynamic, the team will have to continue its improvement in the option game.
"We’re working on it," Andersen said. "We’ll get there. There needs to be more of those as we move forward. It’s repetition. We haven’t had a bad pitch. We’ve put a couple balls on the ground, but we haven’t had a bad pitch. It’s a matter of catching them, consistently doing that."
All of which could create another headache for opposing defenses on game days.