MADISON, Wis. — When Wisconsin’s coaching staff opted to implement a two-quarterback system halfway through this season, none of the players appeared to have any idea how it would work. Least of all, it seemed, quarterbacks Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy.
"I’ve never been in a two-quarterback system before," Stave said this week. "I’d seen Northwestern do it a little bit last year and stuff like that. So I guess just the uncertainty of how we were going to be used, how it was going to be split up, I wasn’t sure about that."
Added McEvoy: "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work. I was unsure. . . . I wasn’t sure if we were going to go by series or by plays. But I guess I kind of find out game day just like you guys do."
Given the delicate nature of making such a decision, which came with the very real possibility of disrupting any semblance of offensive rhythm and fracturing the team, it became especially important for players to buy into the change. And two full games into the experiment, players’ willingness to accept a new scheme seems to have helped turn the season around.
There was no better example of the type of headache a two-quarterback system can create for opponents than during Wisconsin’s 52-7 blowout victory against Maryland on Saturday. Stave, the team’s veteran pocket passer, completed two deep play-action passes to receiver Alex Erickson and finished with a season-best 155 yards passing and two touchdowns. McEvoy, the option-style quarterback, ran for 84 yards on just four carries, which included a 60-yard touchdown.
"I think it creates just a really dynamic element of our offense, having that 1-2 combo," Badgers tight end Sam Arneson said. "It’s worked well so far. The team’s completely behind both guys."
Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1) will once again use two quarterbacks when it travels to face Rutgers (5-3, 1-3) on Saturday.
The ability for both quarterbacks to accept their role has been especially important because not every team can achieve such a feat. Two seasons ago, for example, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter said his team didn’t have an identity as it attempted to rotate two quarterbacks. Last season, the Wildcats’ two-quarterback system of Colter and Trevor Siemian combined for 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions on a team that finished 5-7.
"Joel and I don’t have a problem at all with each other," McEvoy said. "We understand the situation. We’ve got to take advantage when we’re in there and make every snap count."
Badgers coach Gary Andersen said he didn’t look elsewhere for guidance on how to handle a two-quarterback system. Instead, he simply looked to offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who ran a similar system while the coordinator at Utah.
"It’s never exactly the same," Ludwig said. "No situation is the same. But we rely heavily on experience."
Wisconsin’s two-quarterback system largely was borne out of necessity this season because McEvoy proved ineffective as the team’s full-time starter, when he threw as many interceptions as touchdown passes (five). When McEvoy began the season in that role, he was asked to perform in all areas, but he struggled with his ability to complete any play-action passes. His longest completion of the year was 37 yards. But the coaching staff is better utilizing his skill set by asking him to run more and pass less while Stave handles the deep play-actions.
In two games against Illinois and Maryland, Stave has handled 20 drives and McEvoy five. Stave has 97 snaps and McEvoy 38. But the numbers were more balanced against Maryland, which seems more indicative of the way the offense could work for the remainder of the season. Stave played eight series and took 42 snaps. McEvoy played four series and handled 28 snaps.
One of the other bonuses about Wisconsin’s system is that Stave and McEvoy excel in two drastically different areas. That forces defenses to spend substantial time in practice preparing for both quarterbacks, which, in turn, takes away from preparing for what they might normally do.
"It is difficult because you kind of have to play two separate defenses almost," Rutgers middle linebacker Kevin Snyder told NJ.com this week. "Obviously our defense is structured and we’ll keep it the exact same, but at the same time, you need to understand that this guy can run and this guy doesn’t. Then you have to play differently in your run game. Then depending on which quarterback is in with their passing game, it’s a little different."
The most important development to emerge from the two-quarterback system has been two victories against Illinois and Maryland. The system continues to evolve each game, but ultimately, players and coaches care most about winning.
"As long as the quarterback is being productive and putting the unit in a position to execute," Ludwig said, "it’s all good."