MADISON, Wis. — On the surface, some Wisconsin fans may consider Tanner McEvoy’s season as a Badgers quarterback to be something less than satisfactory. How could the team’s quarterback of the future, they will ask, throw more interceptions than touchdowns and lose his starting job after only five games?
Questions about McEvoy’s passing skills are a legitimate concern, and he has much to improve on after playing the position for all of four full seasons. But to suggest his year has been a disappointment does not do justice to the talent he possesses in one major area: athleticism.
McEvoy’s rushing statistics are likely to be lost in the hoopla surrounding Badgers running back Melvin Gordon’s Heisman Trophy-worthy season. Still, the numbers are worth noting.
Consider that McEvoy ranks second among all FBS players in rushing average at 9.5 yards per carry and far surpasses the stats of any quarterback. Boston College’s Tyler Murphy, who is second among rushing quarterbacks, is well behind McEvoy’s pace at 6.7 yards per carry. Northern Illinois’ Drew Hare and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota are tied for third among quarterbacks at 6.2 yards per carry.
Perhaps the most mind-blowing statistic, however is this: McEvoy’s 560 rushing yards already have broken Brooks Bollinger’s single-season school record for rushing yards by a quarterback (466 in 2002). In fact, McEvoy surpassed the mark two Saturdays ago against Nebraska in just 10 games. And did we mention McEvoy has needed 101 fewer rushing attempts than Bollinger?
"He’s a smart, though kid," Badgers tight end Sam Arneson said. "There’s no doubt. When he runs the ball, even the little gains he’s getting on maybe some of the runs that he’s not busting, he’s getting tough yards. I think that speaks a lot to the type of player he is and how hard he runs."
McEvoy’s running will once again be on display as part of the team’s two-quarterback system when No. 14 Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1) plays host to No. 22 Minnesota (8-3, 5-2) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium, with the winner earning a spot in the Big Ten championship game opposite seventh-ranked Ohio State.
McEvoy began the season with experience running a spread option-style offense as both a high school senior and as a quarterback for one year at Arizona Western College. Because of that knowledge base, he said the Badgers’ coaching staff sought his input when implementing the system this season. But few could have predicted the turns the year would bring.
During the season opener against LSU, McEvoy completed only 8 of 24 passes for 50 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions, and he struggled to hit the deep play-action passes that have become a staple of Wisconsin’s offense. Joel Stave ultimately replaced McEvoy as a starter following Wisconsin’s 20-14 loss at Northwestern in the Big Ten opener on Oct. 4. Since that time, the Badgers have won six consecutive games based, in part, on the switch to a two-quarterback system that better utilizes each player’s skill set.
"It’s been an interesting year," McEvoy said. "Obviously, it probably wouldn’t be the year I expected if I think back to week one. It was a successful year I think so far. We’ve been winning. The two quarterback system’s been working, and sometimes it doesn’t. But we’ve been able to pull it off."
Stave said opposing defenses are used to seeing Wisconsin’s power run game and play-action pass, which he is superb at executing. But now, Badgers offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has committed to rotating the two quarterbacks mid-series, creating headaches for the opponent.
"When I come off and Tanner goes on, the offense completely changes into a spread running game where Tanner runs the ball very effectively," Stave said. "I think it really does put defenses in a tough spot."
McEvoy, a 6-foot-6, 222-pound redshirt junior, has provided an excellent change of pace to Stave. Though McEvoy’s passing statistics leave something to be desired — five touchdowns and six interceptions — Ludwig has used him especially well of late. He has carried the ball 16 times and passed just once over the last three games. He also has scored a rushing touchdown in each of those contests and has six scores on the ground this season.
Ludwig noted the biggest key to a successful read-option quarterback was having a player that possessed "a reactionary thought process."
"You can’t dwell on things," Ludwig said. "Things move so quick and that decision has to be made on a snap. We’ve done a great job with that. But the thing that makes Tanner different than a lot of guys running that play is his explosiveness when he does pull. It is a huge difference for us."
Perhaps there was no better example of McEvoy’s impact in the read-option game than during Wisconsin’s 26-24 victory against Iowa last week, when McEvoy displayed his athleticism, speed, intelligence and decision-making skills in one quick blur. On a second-and-11 at the Iowa 45, McEvoy ran for a critical 45-yard touchdown after he faked out most of the Hawkeyes’ defense, which thought Gordon had the ball on a read option play until McEvoy pulled it back and scooted down the left sideline to give the Badgers an early 9-3 lead.
"You’ve got to make quick decisions, and you’ve got to make the right decision," McEvoy said. "I think since I’ve been practicing so long since I started doing this my senior year of high school, being in so many different offenses, I learned how to read different people and different gaps and stuff. It’s kind of come naturally."
Added Badgers coach Gary Andersen: "This last game, we could all see it was a special read he made. . . . He faked me out on that one and obviously faked out a bunch of the fans, too."
McEvoy’s 9.5 yards-per-carry average is particularly astounding when comparing the history of other Wisconsin quarterbacks. No other Badgers quarterback that ranks in the top 10 for single-season rushing yards has averaged more than 4.8 yards per carry — roughly half of what McEvoy is averaging this season (Lionell Crawford in 1989).
But what McEvoy’s incredible skill set ultimately does is to force opposing teams to spend more time preparing for a different element during practice leading up to the game. And that will be no different for Minnesota this week.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill noted his team had spent the week examining read-option looks with backup quarterback Chris Streveler, whose game is similar to what McEvoy does on the field. Still, McEvoy presents his own unique challenges.