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This week in overanalyzing the MSU quarterback situation

Having overanalyzed all the fake quarterback stats I could find, I now feel obligated to overanalyze the first real batch of quarterback stats.  Here they are:

Comp Att Yds TD Int Comp% Yds/Att Rush Yds
Cousins 10 17 183 3 0 58.8 10.8 0 0
Nichol 9 18 135 2 0 50.0 7.5 3 20
Total 19 35 318 5 0 54.3 9.1 3 20


The raw numbers favor Cousins.  After a couple of jittery throws on MSU's opening drive, he settled down and threw the ball accurately and effectively on subsequent possessions.  You couldn't have asked him to do much more than what he did with the opportunities he was given.

Nichol's numbers are a notch below Cousins' but still very good.  By my accounting, he had a couple drops by receivers on good throws.  Had those catches been made, the passing numbers would have been nearly even.  And he showed flashes of his running ability, picking up 20 yards on 3 carries (I've excluded the kneel down play at the end of the game from the numbers).

There are a couple contextual things that don't show up in the numbers:

  • Montana State mounted almost no pass rush throughout the game, failing to record a single sack.  That would tend to favor Cousins, who's at his best when he can sit back in the pocket and make solid throws (although, to be fair, his first TD pass did come on the move).  Against a better pass rush, Nichol's knack for making plays on the run--which he showed on the TD pass to Dion Sims--might be a bigger asset.  (Highlights of TD passes are here.)
  • Cousins showed a touch more poise, as the offense ran more smoothly when he was in the game.  Nichol didn't make any egregious mistakes, but he did take a delay of game penalty, call a timeout when the play clock was running down, and fumble the ball once as he scrambled (he recovered the fumble himself).

Add it all up and you get . . . continued deadlock.

Two pundits of the general sports columnist variety have weighed in this week: Terry Foster and Dave Mayo both say go with Nichol because he's more mobile.  While their conclusion coincides with the one I made last week, it's not quite so simple in terms of team management.  I keep coming back to the Jim Tressel quote I linked to last week (extended version below):

You hope that someone would emerge and you hope that that would happen naturally.  You want to try and not (have) it being viewed as simply a coaching decision.
But what you hope happens is that the course of the early season, and people love to talk about it in the preseason and all that, but you hope that during the early season that you can play more than one guy. I think we all like to do that. And then you hope it emerges and that it becomes very obvious to everyone involved who the person is, who is going to be behind the wheel with the lead group.

The article that quote is pulled from centered around the Michigan quarterback situation--but it applies equally to the MSU situation.  If Cousins and Nichol play evenly through the first three nonconference games, can you really send one of them to the bench to bide his time waiting for an injury to the starter?

That leaves you with the Rexrode plan:

Bad post-game poetry aside, I'm calling it right now. I just don't see how you don't use Keith Nichol all year long, with all the physical ability he has. And I just can't see Kirk Cousins doing anything but throwing ropes, moving the ball and keeping himself on the field as well.

At least one team leader concurs.  Trevor Anderson:

Florida did it with Tim Tebow and Chris Leak a couple of years ago and won a championship.  If we can do that, and they both play well, more power to them. They keep the offense moving the ball and give us our chance to get our rest on the sideline.

It's hard to argue with this sentiment given what we've seen from the two players to date.  But how does this work on the field?  Do you continue rotating by quarter as the coaching staff basically did on Saturday?  Do you go with the Brady-Henson plan (both QBs play one quarter in the first half, with the better performer playing the entire second half)?  Do you rotate on different plays depending on the situation (e.g., Nichol in short-yardage situations)?

The problem is that, while the two players have different strengths, they're not different enough that you can define specific roles for them.  And I just don't see a two-quarterback situation co-existing with Mark Dantonio's no-nonsense style for more than a third of a season.  Finally, as noted in the Free Press article the Anderson quote was pulled from, you can't use the two-QB system as a stopgap as Florida did with Tebow and Leak, since both players have a full three years of eligiblity remaining.

Steve Grinczel thinks Nichol will get the start against Central to keep things as equal as possible.  More than likely, both quarterbacks play against Notre Dame, as well, with the goal being to have a clear cut starter for the conference opener against Wisconsin.  Unless one guy clearly outperforms the other in both games, the coaching staff would be making a decision based on one game (likely the Notre Dame game), plus whatever differences they've been able to glean from practice sessions.

Conclusion: Unlike the fan who lobbied for Nichol on this site last week (under the same "KJ" screen name), this blogger has a very hard time forecasting how this situation is going to play out.  Overall, this is a very, very good situation.  If Keith Nichol hadn't transferred into the program, all we'd be talking about is how fantastic Kirk Cousins looked on Saturday.  The question is not "Which QB puts you in a position to win?" but rather "Which QB puts you in the best possible position to win?"

I'm curious what the TOC readership is thinking.  To date, you've all been admirably restrained in expressing strong opinions on the matter--much to my chagrin.  This is the sort of thing that's supposed to makes the sports blogosphere go 'round.  Now that you've seen both players in action for half a game each, let's hear some opinions and/or predictions.  How does this thing resolve itself over the next few weeks?  (Or doesn't it?)