Will Andersen, Badgers “Play it Safe” in QB battle?


Yesterday venerable Wisconsin State Journal sports columnist Tom Oates threw his prediction out to the world as to who wins the open battle at quarterback for Wisconsin and he suggested that UW and head coach Gary Andersen will play it safe. 

Really? Because "playing it safe" worked so well last season? UW's ex-head coach (remember our ban on the coach that shall not be named is still in full effect) did exactly that out of camp, only to pull Danny O'Brien after two and a half football games in favor of the redshirt freshman walk-on Joel Stave – you know, the guy who had the arm and the ability, but was "making too many mistakes" according to most out of camp. 

Stave went on to start six games and play a half of the Utah State game, bringing the Badgers back from certain defeat in the 2nd half against the Andersen led Aggies. He brought a different energy to this team, one that everyone on offense seemed to respond to that night in Camp Randall. 

Was he perfect? Far from it, but this was a freshman seeing his first ever game action in college and he more than held his own. In fact, if it weren't for bad defense and an apparent knock to the noggin, Stave would've been credited with a W at Nebraska in his first ever Big Ten game. 

Did he hold on to the ball too long at times and take some unnecessary hits? Sure did. It's what cost him the rest of the regulars season against Michigan State (or at least that's what we're led to believe, despite the evidence pointing to a well timed blitz that Stave couldn't have gotten out of the way of or seen in time to throw the ball away). 

That's not to say Curt Phillips is or was a terrible quarterback a season ago, or that he won't win the battle this season either thanks to a bit more mobility wanted from the QB. However, ask yourself this question. Exactly how many games did Phillips win for his team? 

Or was it like the one game that Oates pointed to when questioned by a fan –

So, let me get this straight… In Oates' world Phillips gets credit for a W that had NOTHING to do with him and everything to do with over 600 yards rushing, two running backs going for over 200 yards a pop and all three of them rushing for averages of 7.3 yards a carry or better? Well then… that's interesting news.

I can't come up with a single game Phillips WON for his team on his own by making plays or decisions, other than to hand the ball off. In fact he was all of 2-3 as a starter last season if you want to play the game Oates just played, compared to the 4-2 UW was in games Stave started.

Yes, Curt Phillips was 6-8 passing in the Big Ten Championship game, but it was for only a whopping 71 yards (8.9yd average). I'd hardly call that confidence building in terms of a QB capable of winning you football games and the whole having to throw the ball just EIGHT times in a game is pretty telling of exactly how little Phillips had to do with victory other than handing the ball off. 

You could point to the Penn State and Ohio State games for evidence that he could be more than the safe bet, after all he did lead them on game tying drives with under two minutes remaining in both games. However, both teams' defenses were playing it safe in coverage and the overall numbers aren't that pretty in those games either. 

Phillips threw for barely over 50% combined in those two games and while he had 3TD's to just 1INT he also averaged just 6.9 yards an attempt combined as well. Those aren't numbers of winning QB's.

In fact, let us compare the numbers side by side in the games each started for the season, shall we? Phillips was 46-81 (56.7%) passing for 540 yards (6.6avg), and had 5TD's to 2INT's over the course of five starts. Stave was 68-112 (60.7%) passing for 1,089 yards (9.7avg), and had 6TD's to 3INT's. 

So, exactly what part of playing it safe with Phillips as your QB makes you feel good based on last years results? Sure it appears that Phillips' confidence and arm have gotten better as camp unfolds this season, but in order to be the dynamic offense (let us not forget that is the goal stated by Andersen and Ludwig) you need to be able to throw the ball deep and with accuracy and you need to be able to scare opponents with your QB's abilities as a thrower. 

Problem is no one does and no one will respect Phillips' arm until he proves it and even in the two games (Ohio State and Penn State) where his biggest sample size of 25 attempts came through he couldn't crack the 200 yard mark and averaged all of 6.2 and 7.6 yards per attempt respectively. 

If that's the result of "playing it safe" with your quarterback, give me the guy who has at least shown he's got the cannon for an arm and the ability to continually get better. Call me crazy, but I'll take the guy who went into Lincoln, NE and the vaunted Memorial Stadium and took it to the Huskers over the guy who had to scramble and produce at the last possible moment just to get his team to tie ball games with virtually no clock left in regulation. 

However, in the big picture, isn't it nice to be comparing the results of two quarterbacks in actual game action rather than speculating as to what one QB may even look like as a starter? Either way this battle goes, Wisconsin is far better off at QB than it was this time last year and we shouldn't lose sight of that.

Andrew Coppens

About Andrew Coppens

Andy is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He is the Managing Editor of MadTownBadger and associate editor of Bloguin's World Cup site, 32flags.com as well as Publisher of Big Ten site talking10.com