The 2012 edition of the tilt for Paul Bunyan’s Axe contains one exciting subplot after another. Can the Gophers bounce back from subpar performances against Iowa and Northwestern? Will the Badgers be able to maintain their momentum fresh off their most complete victory of the season? Is Coach Kill’s seizure issue becoming a distraction for the squad?
But all those issues are secondary to the indecision that has surrounded both programs at the most critical of positions: quarterback.
The Gophers have run out two different starters during the first six games of the season: Marqueis “Maybe I Should Be Playing WR” Gray and Max “Stop Comparing Me To Andy Dalton” Shortell. The Badgers have deployed the tandem of: Danny “Seriously, I Am Not Russell Wilson” O’Brien and Joel “Freshman This!” Stave.
Most recently, the Gophers have seen both Gray and Shortell fail behind the helm. This has only fueled the speculation over who should start. And while starting Gray at wide receiver and letting Shortell grow into the QB position might be the best approach for the team’s success now and in the future, Gray produces just enough magic when behind the center to continue justify giving him another shot.
The game against Northwestern is a classic example. There were a half dozen plays where Gray used his athleticism to escape Wildcat pressure and make a positive play. Most times those plays were with his legs, but occasionally he would find an open receiver. Unfortunately, he does not do this consistently enough to solidify his claim to the starting role. Furthermore, putting Gray at wide receiver still ensures his athleticism is on the field while, at the same time, improving the Gophers at a position of need. Unfortunately, the Gophers seem reluctant to name Shortell the starter.
Interestingly enough, Coach Kill has had success with two starting QBs (see Chand Harnish and Jordan Lynch), but I am not sure that same strategy will work with Gray and Shortell. Further, if Gray has any hope of getting a real paycheck to play football…er….I mean….to play for real money….I mean…..to play on Sundays, he had better get used to the idea of catching the football. What better way than to start showcasing his talents now. Accept the Hines Ward conversion and hope you can even have half the career he did in the National Football League. Plus, making a decision will probably give Shortell a shot in the arm and we can find out what we have with him.
Now, the Badgers have dealt with their QB controversy a little more affirmatively (and it may be the reason they are printing these same t-shirts next year too).
O’Brien started the year. Struggled. Bielema went to freshman Joel Stave, despite little pressure to do so, and Stave has returned a mixed bag. What seemed like a desperation move has seemed to spark the offense to a certain extent. Stave’s numbers are not overly impressive, as he has completed a tick more than 58% of his passes (significantly less than Danny Boy). But he has had made more big plays, completing one pass for 50+ yard in 3 of his 4 starts (O’Brien only had 1 in his 3 starts). It is this type of stat that has many clamoring for Bielema to let Stave off the leash and let him sling it.
But, this type of football is the norm for the Badgers. If any major football program is known for producing game mangers, it is Wisconsin. From Jim Sorgi to Scott Tolzein, the Badgers have consistently had guys that thrived at not making mistakes and systematically marching the squad down the field. The play-calling has limited Stave to the game manager mode. But, he has demonstrated (in limited opportunities) that he has the skill set to be something more. Once the play-calling expands, the offense could really take off.
All of that being said, it might be Bielema’s decision to make a decision and name Stave the starter that separates the Badgers from the Gophers (and maybe gives them an edge — which means more of these shirts too). The Gophers lack an identity because their coaches seem unwilling to pick a horse and go with it. Stave, for all his differences from the Wisconsin mold, is the starter. The team knows it. The fans know it. But, maybe most importantly, he knows it.
Ultimately, it is Stave’s self-confidence that just might be the difference in this Saturday’s rivalry game at Camp Randall. While the Gophers QBs struggle to assert themselves, Stave can march out there knowing he is the guy. Misguided or not, that kind of confidence can be the difference between making a play when it matters and doing something that hurts the team. Controversy? What controversy!