Two games into his career as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, Tanner McEvoy has managed to do his best Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impersonation.
On one hand, there was his nightmare against LSU in the season opener. On the other, he was brilliant against Western Illinois. It begs the question—which version of McEvoy is here to stay?
Now, yes, the bad game was against a powerhouse and the good game was against an FCS school. But bear with me. It’s time for some all-too-early analysis.
Let’s start with LSU and quantify just how bad that game was. The redshirt junior was 8-24 for just 50 yards and two interceptions.
Reviewing each of these attempts in-depth makes McEvoy’s numbers appear even worse. One of his completions was pure luck when lineman Kyle Costigan caught a deflection. Despite the Badgers gaining 173 yards on the ground in the first half, McEvoy was unable to establish play action, going just 2-6 for 22 yards on such throws.
The real problem, however, was the deep ball. McEvoy’s longest completion through the air came on a 13-yard gain to Alex Erickson at the beginning of the second quarter. When he tried to air it out, McEvoy routinely overthrew his receivers. Of his eight passes that could be classified as deep balls (those that traveled at least 15 yards downfield through the air), McEvoy completed none and overthrew his man six times. Both of his interceptions were overthrows as well.
It’s fair to ask why Wisconsin would continue to throw bombs down the field if McEvoy was struggling to make those passes, but he was awful on them regardless.
McEvoy’s limited pocket presence also affected his numbers. On certain plays, the converted safety released the ball nearly 10 yards behind the scrimmage. With mild pressure in his face, McEvoy would either tuck it and run or throw wildly off his back foot. Though some of the scrambles worked, he often took off prematurely or tried to run when the first down marker was just too far away to realistically pick up the yardage with his legs.
“I don’t think I did very well,” McEvoy said after LSU. “I made a few mental mistakes and that happens, but that can be the difference in winning and losing a game.”
On to Western Illinois. It was more of the same early for McEvoy. In the first quarter, he was just 1-3 for eight yards and an interception while leading the offense to just two first downs over three drives.
The new wrinkle the Badgers needed to overcome was Western Illinois’ defensive front. After McEvoy’s difficulties against LSU, the Leathernecks’ game plan was simple: stack the box and force Wisconsin to throw. Their run defense held up throughout the game, allowing just 167 rushing yards on 4.3 yards per carry.
With the run game limited, McEvoy needed to take advantage of single coverage downfield. The turning point came on an incompletion to Sam Arneson early in the second quarter. On 2nd and 14, Arneson was alone on the left side but McEvoy sailed it over his head.
Arneson somewhat bailed his quarterback out on the very next play with a fantastic catch in traffic to pick up the first down, but not every throw will be perfect. McEvoy at least allowed his receiver to make a play, something that was rarely true against LSU.
Two plays later, McEvoy finally made a beautiful throw on a deep ball, hitting Reggie Love in the hands for what would likely have been a 67-yard touchdown had Love not dropped it. He would not throw another incompletion until the fourth quarter.
Though he still had moments of oversight on this drive, such as not getting the ball to a wide-open Corey Clement before the defense closed, it was here that McEvoy first appeared calm and collected.
McEvoy maintained this momentum until he was relieved by Bart Houston in garbage time. You don’t rattle off 17 straight completions without demonstrating poise and accuracy, the two facets that plagued him the most against LSU.
McEvoy also thrived against WIU when running read option. Though the Badgers are far from being an option team, their quarterback’s athleticism allows them to mix this in. Faking a handoff and taking it himself, McEvoy had four carries for 40 yards and a touchdown out of this set.
A week removed from a dreadful debut, McEvoy finished 23-28 for 283 yards, three touchdowns and that one early interception.
After the win, head coach Gary Andersen praised his quarterback’s command of the offense.
“There was nothing said. There was no magic fairy dust sprinkled,” Andersen said. “He just started to execute.”
McEvoy exuded postgame confidence as well.
“We needed a game like this,” he said. “Their defense was making us pass the ball and making us throw it. That’s what we have to do when teams do that to us and we have to show that we can do it.”
Though the victory was against an FCS team, Wisconsin demonstrated that it is capable of moving the ball through the air. Going forward, that should reopen running lanes for Melvin Gordon and Clement. McEvoy doesn’t need to be a star–he only needs to be serviceable. He proved he can do that last Saturday.