Crowe’s current Jacksonville State team has two quarterbacks — Marques Ivory and Coty Blanchard — and its biggest problem is finding a way to get them both in the game because both are indeed and in fact starters.
You can’t play them at the same time because it takes a spot from another valuable weapon in the offense — unless you’re running some kind of gadget play (remember when Ivory and then-quarterback Brooks Robinson hooked up for a 2009 touchdown at Georgia Tech?). Who do the Gamecocks leave out? Washaun Ealey or one of his productive understudies? One of the speedy and sure-handed receivers? A tight end?
And they don’t want to use one as a simple change of pace every couple of series because both are capable of managing a game in their own rights and interruptions like that ruin any personal rhythm they might get established.
The solution, then, has been to alternate them — sometimes within the same set of downs.
“You’ve got to get them both in the game,” JSU offensive coordinator Ronnie Letson said. “You can’t have them both on the bench. Both are very good at what they do, so we’ve got to try to utilize them as much as we can.
“Coty is capable of running our entire offense and Ques has proved in the years before that he’s able to do it. We’ve got to play them both. How do you do it? I don’t know there’s a certain science to it. It’s just a feel.”
So far, through two games of feeling their way at least, it seems to be working. The Gamecocks produced enough yardage and points against two quality opponents to be comfortable with the results. They moved the ball on No. 10 Arkansas at times alternating quarterbacks and built a 24-10 lead with a more limited version of the approach on a Chattanooga team that returned statistically the best defense in its league.
The idea of alternating quarterbacks isn’t new — and it’s not new to Crowe.
There are news reports of the approach being used by Illinois way back in 1986. Florida did it — not so much to the degree JSU is now — when Tim Tebow played there. Crowe went to it even earlier than that — at Livingston (now West Alabama) with a quarterback who later would become his offensive coordinator at JSU, Willie Slater.
“Teams might have done it, but I don’t think they’ve perfected it as much as we kind of have this year so far,” Blanchard said. “I thought it was great timing, against Arkansas and Chattanooga, how we mixed it up like. I think we’ve done a great job of it so far.”
The revolving door was at its most extreme in the opener at Arkansas. At one point in the Gamecocks’ first touchdown drive — a 13-play march — Ivory and Blanchard alternated on seven of eight snaps. The revolving door continued later in the game.
“That was neat, that was fun,” Blanchard said “I don’t think anyone’s probably ever seen anything like that.”
Interestingly, the flow they developed produced an even 2-to-1 split in snaps with Ivory taking 54 and Blanchard 27. It wasn’t intended to be that way — even Letson said he wouldn’t have guessed it wound up like that.
It wasn’t as symmetrical in last week’s last-second victory against Chattanooga. Ivory took 46 of the 59 snaps. Blanchard suspects the approach going forward will look a lot more like the Chattanooga game than Arkansas, but the situation of the game will be most influential factor in determining the split.
“Quarterback is a rhythm thing,” Letson said, snapping his fingers. “(In the Arkansas game) I’m like I’m going to move them enough … to build rhythm.
“I don’t want Ques to stand there for five or six series — or two — series and then all of a sudden Coty gets a whole series. I want them in (the game) the whole time, with their minds in it, where they can be in the game the next snap, in and out like that. I want them always to have their mind in it ready to roll at any time. We’re just trying to keep them as focused as we possibly can.”
And it’s actually gone quite smoothly. Nobody has run into anyone trying to get in the game of back to the bench. No one has forgotten it was their turn. Nobody in the huddle has wondered what in the wide, wide world of sports is going on. And, perhaps most importantly, each time the switch was made the Gamecocks got the play off in time.
“Everybody says it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” Ivory said, “but we find a way to make it work and I think it has to do with the attitude we have toward it and the people who are involved with it. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes (in the other attempts), but we accept our roles. We know that it’s going to be this way and we just do what we need to do to help the team.
“They made it clear to us we’re both going to play, we’ve just got to be ready. We know the system and what’s expected.”
As the revolving door turns don’t think the people on the opposing sideline can guess what’s going to happen depending on which quarterback is sent into the game. The conventional wisdom is the Gamecocks are going to throw the ball when Ivory is playing and run it when Blanchard goes under center.
Not so fast, Lee Corso friends. Blanchard led the OVC in passing efficiency each of the last two seasons. In the Arkansas game, Ivory was almost 50-50 run-to-pass, although the Gamecocks did have twice as many runs behind Blanchard as passes. For the season, Ivory has been in on 47 passes and 53 runs; for Blanchard, that ratio is 12 passes to 28 runs.
Initially, when there was a new quarterback who needed to play involved, it typically has been Crowe’s plan to insert the backup in the third series and let the game play out from there; “what you do determines what I do,” he likes to say. And that’s how it was when Blanchard was a freshman, but now that he’s a wily veteran — even starting fulltime last year after Ivory got hurt — the coaches can make the switch with confidence at any time.
And as the play chart has indicated so far, they do often and unscripted.
“I don’t know that there’s a way to explain something that really is so in-the-moment for us,” Crowe said. “We go into it with definite roles with both quarterbacks and then we let the game take over.
“It’s like a baseball coach changing pitchers. How do you know how many more pitches a starter’s got in him? I don’t know you get it completely right … but I also know there is no perfect in this.
“You can overanalyze it, but I don’t think it’s an analytical process. Every week we take an eraser and start trying to get it right. Last time doesn’t count at all. I don’t think it counts any.”
Ivory said that randomness is one of the secrets to its success — both for the quarterbacks staying sharp and against the opposing defenses.
The unfolding quarterback approach has been interesting to watch and given defensive coordinators in the OVC something to think about as the conference schedule is about to get underway. Don’t, however, look for the most extreme approach — that of alternating quarterbacks on every snap — any time soon.
“That’d mean I’d have to think too much,” Letson said. “I don’t know if I could do it every play, but the way it’s worked out it’s worked out decent for us so far. Hopefully we stay in a rhthym and keep playing better. We’ve got a lot of corrections to make and move forward. Nobody’s perfect.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @JSUSports_Star.