When the Florida Gators won the Bowl Championship Series national championship in 2006, losing only once during the regular season at Auburn and blowing out then top-ranked Ohio State in the national championship game, a large part of their success was due to an unusual offensive system.
Unlike most teams, which name a starting quarterback and stick with him throughout the season, Florida gave two quarterbacks notable playing time. Senior Chris Leak was the starter and threw most of the Gators’ passes, but freshman Tim Tebow took many snaps, especially designed rushing plays. While the quarterbacks shared time and the spotlight, head coach Urban Meyer’s system helped the two quarterbacks achieve significant individual accomplishments as well as the most important team success of all — a national championship.
What do the 2006 Gators have to do with the 2012 Princeton Tigers? Princeton also has two quarterbacks sharing snaps — sophomores Connor Michelsen and Quinn Epperly — and while the Tigers may not have a season like Florida’s six years ago, their two quarterbacks may bring a type of success not seen by the Orange and Black in some time.
So which quarterback is Princeton’s Chris Leak and which is Tim Tebow?
“It’s a running joke on the team,” Michelsen said. “Quinn’s a lot like Tebow, both on the field and off the field. You’ve got this big lefty that can run the ball. You’ve got a thick, kind of bigger-built kind of guy that can run through somebody — he’s a good runner. When you look at the way he throws the ball sometimes, it looks a lot like Tebow.”
Like Leak and Tebow, Michelsen and Epperly bring contrasting styles to the field. Michelsen is the traditional right-handed drop-back passer who can do damage through the air with his polished arm. Epperly is the left-handed dual-threat quarterback who is not afraid to barrel down defenders with his legs. And just as Meyer took advantage of both his passers after a quarterback competition in the spring, so are head coach Bob Surace ’90 and offensive coordinator James Perry.
“[Surace and Perry] couldn’t find a way to keep both of us off the field, to be honest,” Epperly said. “I think both of us bring things to the game that we both do very well but that are also very different. I think when it came down to it, they couldn’t decide to go with just one guy and have the other guy that could go play somewhere else and do very well just sitting on the sideline not doing anything.”
It has worked thus far for the Tigers, who are 2-2 this season, with each loss coming by three points or less. While the Tigers’ strength on offense is primarily on the ground, their improved passing game from last season has certainly helped so far, especially in their domination of Columbia and Lafayette the last two weekends.
“Anytime you’re running the ball so strongly, people tend to focus on the run game a little more,” Michelsen said. “And then you throw a little play-action in there, and even straight dropping back and throwing the ball — it opens up things so much more, because you have to honor that run.”
While the dichotomy between Epperly and Michelsen may seem apparent at first glance — one is the runner and the other is the pure passer — a closer look at the statistics reveals a different story. Michelsen leads the Tigers with 453 passing yards in a run-heavy offense, but Epperly has the lone passing touchdown of the two. (Interestingly enough, senior kick holder Tom Moak leads the team with two touchdown passes off of botched field-goal snaps.) On the flip side, Epperly has 100 rushing yards, right behind Princeton’s three tailbacks, but Michelsen is also a solid runner. His numbers on the stat sheet are modest, but accounting for yards lost on sacks, Michelsen’s total on the ground jumps up to 72 yards.
“I can run, and he can pass,” Michelsen said. “We’re definitely not limited.”
“Connor’s got a great arm — they like to let him air it out,” Epperly said. “Sometimes when I’m in, it’s usually more running, but like he said, we can both do both.”
While Michelsen and Epperly are rotated throughout games, each individual series belongs to one quarterback. Michelsen has started every game, but both have played often. What determines who sets up under center for each series? This seems to be a closely guarded secret among the coaching staff, as neither Michelsen nor Epperly knows.
“Honestly, the rationale isn’t explained to us a ton,” Epperly said. “Usually, my first series is planned, but after that it’s kind of how each one of us is playing, how the defense is doing. Probably, at Columbia, I got an extra series or two just because we were up and running the ball a little more. But as far as it being explained, I don’t think there’s really a set-in-stone thing to it.”
For two quarterbacks that came into the fall in a dead-heat quarterback competition, Epperly and Michelsen show remarkable cooperation.
“We’re both very receptive of each other on the field,” Michelsen said. “We’re helping each other out. When he had that [23-yard touchdown] run this pask week against Lafayette, I was running down the sideline yelling, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah!’ When they called the play, I was, ‘Ah! He’s got the look. I know Quinn’s gonna get it; it’s a touchdown.’ We help each other out whenever we can. We say what we’re seeing when one’s on the field and the other isn’t. At the end of the day, it’s about wins. It’s not about the stats you put up or how much time you’re playing. It’s about whether you get a win. And if he’s scoring touchdowns, I’m scoring touchdowns, that’s great.”
For two sophomores, Michelsen and Epperly have a chance to bring the Tigers back to not just relevance but prominence, as neither they nor any of the other members of the team are satisfied with Princeton’s initial success.
“Right now, we’re 2-2, and people are talking about it like it’s a great thing, but I’ll bet you if you ask some of guys on the team, it’s still a little bitter that we’re 2-2,” Epperly said. “But there’s a definite knowledge on our team that we’ve got some real talented young guys. The coaches have done a real good job with their recruiting the last couple of years, and I think our future’s pretty bright.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/10/31459/