Running The Backup and Crashing

Without their starting QBs, Oklahoma and Oregon self-destructed while Hawai'i is still rolling

College Football Preview: Week 13

> The Red Zone  |  Tape It Up  |  Strike The Pose  |  Breaking The Code
> B.J.: Love and Hate  |  Amsinger: Weekly Picks  |  Sorenson: 10 Qs  |   Braff: Backups Crash and Burn
> Trev: Love Woodson's' Poise  |  Michigan's Next Move   |  Hart: Giving Thanks At The Border
> Blackburn: Miles To Ann Arbor?  |  Palm: Impact Games Galore  |  Roland: Mizzou To End Kansas' Dream
> Caparell: Long Time Coming For Mississippi State  |  Crystal Ball: Weekend Predictions

Nov. 20, 2007

By Carolyn Braff


Carolyn Braff

Carolyn is an assistant editor and writer for
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Even in this topsy-turvy year of college football, the great teams are still built around great quarterbacks. Running back Jonathan Stewart puts up big numbers for Oregon, but the offense runs on the arms and legs of Dennis Dixon. Oklahoma has a triple-threat run game, but Sam Bradford is the most efficient passer in the nation. Take the signal-caller out of the equation, and these teams are toast, lost against the likes of Arizona and Texas Tech.


Unless the team in question is Hawai'i. The Warriors have played two full games this season without star quarterback Colt Brennan, and backup Tyler Graunke has managed to do what Brady Leaf and Joey Halzle could not - lead his team to victory.




How? He came prepared.


Before taking the reins of Oklahoma's offense on Saturday, Halzle had spent little time with the first unit.


"He's been very limited in games," coach Bob Stoops said. "Even in practice, twos don't really get the snaps that the ones do. For the time he's had through 10 games, I thought he stepped up and did some decent things."


In the Big 12, decent does not cut it. Not even against Texas Tech.


With Bradford under center, the Sooners held a 7-3 lead in the first quarter and everything appeared to be in order. That is, until the redshirt freshman suffered a concussion that pulled him out of the game and took the Sooners' offense out with him.


Against the nation's No. 50 defense, Oklahoma's No. 4 scoring offense managed just 27 points, 16 fewer than their season average. Chalk some of that up to Halzle's not-quite-Bradford completion percentage - the starter connects on 70 percent of his passes, while Halzle was 24-of-41 (58 percent) with two touchdowns and an interception.


But it wasn't as if the JUCO transfer came to Lubbock expecting to play. Halzle enrolled at Oklahoma in the spring 2006 semester and served as a backup last season, completing all of one pass on the year. This fall, he lost the position battle to Bradford and had attempted 10 career passes - completing five of them - before taking over the offense in a Big 12 game with the stakes suddenly Texas-sized.


"Your backup never has the number of snaps the other guy has," Stoops said. "But Joey did a good job of hanging in there and continuing to play."


At Oklahoma, as is the case at Oregon, time in the system does not mean time with the offense.


When Dixon's already-torn ACL gave out in the first quarter against Arizona, the Ducks never recovered. Leaf came into the game with far more experience than Halzle, and with the coaching staff well aware of Dixon's injury status, the senior should have been prepared. But the Oregon offense is designed for a mobile quarterback, which Leaf is not.


More specifically, the Oregon offense is designed for Dixon, and it does not function when just anyone takes over, even with two weeks notice.


"It's obviously not a happy deal," coach Mike Bellotti said, furnishing a candidate for the understatement of the year.


Oregon's offense, ranked No. 5 in the nation, was feeble against Arizona's No. 63 scoring defense, and not just because Leaf completed only 22-of-46 passes with two interceptions. On a week when he knew he had a good chance to play, the backup was out of practice and asked to run a system designed for someone else.


Oklahoma and Oregon were not alone in the QB-goes-down, takes-team-with-him saga. Michigan's Chad Henne struggled with a shoulder injury against Ohio State, throwing most of his passes high or wide and nearly all of them off-target. He sat out an entire series in the third quarter to deal with the pain and finished the afternoon 11-of-34 for 68 yards, getting no help from his supporting cast as the Wolverines managed 91 yards of total offense.


"You could tell in warm-ups he was not throwing the ball like he was two weeks ago," coach Lloyd Carr said. "He tried. He took some punches out there."


Hawai'i took its punches, too, but threw the one that counted, relying on the arm (and experience) of their backup quarterback to maintain a perfect record.


Dan Kelly kicked a 45-yard field goal to seal the Warriors' 10th win, but it was Graunke who kept Hawai'i alive. Brennan played just one snap in the first quarter and one in the second after sustaining a concussion in the previous week's game, and Hawai'i had the confidence in its backup to let him go out and get the win.


"Everybody thought it's just Colt Brennan - we have a lot of great players," head coach June Jones said. "Graunke is a gamer. He plays well under pressure and he's a competitive kid. He did just what he practiced to do."


The key word in that phrase? Practice.


While Halzle and Leaf idled with backup teams and bench warmers, Graunke was taking snaps with the first unit. Graunke also benefited from stepping in for Brennan on Sept. 22, when the starter was sidelined with a sprained ankle, and seeing significant playing time as an underclassman.


The plug-and-chug system June Jones runs at Hawai'i undoubtedly makes life easier on the quarterback than the Dixon-shaped mold Leaf attempted to squeeze himself into in Eugene. But while Oregon, Oklahoma and Michigan are feeling the bitter sting of embarrassing conference losses, the Warriors can take that plug-and-chug formula all the way to an undefeated season, should they defeat Boise State.


Perhaps the Warriors are on to something with their involuntary QB rotation. This week's quarterback casualties were far from an anomaly - just ask West Virginia, which lost its only game of the season after Pat White suffered a game-ending thigh bruise against USF. USC and Cal can also commiserate, but the stories of Oregon and Oklahoma are most painful because the national championship was involved.


Should teams start sacrificing their starter's precious practice hours in favor of giving reps to the backup? Certainly not. But there is a way to work in the second-teamer without forfeiting wins. An inexperienced backup, or an offense designed for just one man, can ruin national title aspirations just as quickly as a torn ACL.


The moral of this story? Prepare your backup. You never know when you'll need him to save your season.