If he had it his way, Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph would be starting and playing 100 percent of the time. And if he had it his way, Oklahoma State quarterback J.W. Walsh would be starting and playing 100 percent of the time. Let's not so much as entertain any other notion.
But before that statement gets tossed in a bin of negative cliches like "selfish" and "entitled"—before anyone interprets it as a locker room chasm for the 10-0 Cowboys, ranked No. 6 in the College Football Playoff poll and two games away from a potential playoff appearance—understand what Rudolph and Walsh are feeling is what any competitor feels.
It's a football player's instinct to want to be the the guy all the time.
That's what makes this delicate balance with two quarterbacks operating Oklahoma State's offense so unique. It's a chemistry project requiring exact football and human measurements. Otherwise, the flow of the offense can be disrupted, egos can be bruised, locker rooms can be divided, trust issues can fester deep and boil high.
Even head coach Mike Gundy, who never comes across as surprised at anything, seemed amazed at the rarity of what he has in front of him.
"It’s a delicate situation that is working for us that I’m not sure could work in any other year," he told Bleacher Report. "We’re very fortunate."
Oklahoma State's two-quarterback rotation works because Rudolph and Walsh are selfless and willing to put the team's success over personal desires about starting. There is no other choice here. The term "sacrifice" is one of those sporting buzz words drilled into a football player's brain from the first moments of Pee Wee football, when oversized pads and helmets are comically worn on tiny bodies.
Sacrifice for each other. Sacrifice for the betterment of the team. Accept that you're not always going to get what you want. Accept your role.
For Rudolph, the sophomore starter, that means taking a majority of the snaps and attempting nearly 90 percent of the team's passes. It also means coming off the field on shorter third-down and red-zone situations. Walsh, the redshirt senior, then presents defenses with an entirely different look on offense, one that's more predicated on the zone read and play action.
"I think it works because they’re pretty similar," said John Walsh, J.W.'s father and former coach at Guyer High School in Denton, Texas. "They don’t think about themselves for the greater goal of the team. They’re both high-character."
"He’s the ultimate team player," Rudolph's high school coach, Kyle Richardson, said of his former quarterback. "He’s not going to do anything to selfishly blow up the team. He and J.W. are friends. They’ve found a way to make it work and make the team successful."
There wasn't a specific moment when Rudolph and Walsh bonded, per se; the relationship between the two quarterbacks developed naturally over time. Rudolph was a touted true freshman from Rock Hill, South Carolina. Walsh was the program veteran. The best way to describe their interaction was that of a mentor-mentee.
However, a turning point came last November at Baylor, the very team the Pokes will play on Saturday with hopes of keeping their undefeated streak alive. It was Rudolph's first start of the season, made out of necessity—Oklahoma State's plan was to redshirt and develop him—because of injuries to Walsh and former quarterback Daxx Garman, now at Maryland.
Against the Bears, Rudolph showed why he could be the face of the program for years to come, throwing for 281 yards, two touchdowns and two picks. The following game against Oklahoma, a stunning 38-35 overtime win for the Pokes, Rudolph tossed for 273 yards and two touchdowns to just one interception.
With Walsh out for the year, Richardson explained it became easier for the two to "collaborate going against Baylor and Oklahoma."
"[Offensive coordinator Mike] Yurcich took care of the X’s and O’s. By that time J.W. had been through everything. He’d been hurt, won games and lost games," the elder Walsh said. "He told Mason, 'I’ve been through this.' I think it was more about mentoring him through the game-day experiences."
Oklahoma State would go on to defeat Washington 30-22 in the Cactus Bowl. In three starts, Rudolph threw for 853 at 9.9 yards per attempt and six touchdowns.
Why It Works
Not two weeks after winning the bowl game, Gundy named Rudolph his starting quarterback for 2015. Walsh would get second-team reps in spring practice. Garman eventually transferred out of the program.
Rudolph, then Walsh. That was the order. "In the spring, there wasn’t this two-platooning of quarterbacks," Richardson said. However, Walsh did have a package of plays that gradually grew over the course of the offseason. By preseason practice, it was evident Walsh would have some role in the offense.
"We kind of fell into it," Gundy said.
Looking over one's shoulder is poison to a quarterback's confidence. It's the only position on the field that doesn't routinely substitute players. It would have been natural for Rudolph to wonder, if he was the starter, why he would be taken off the field in certain situations for Walsh. Maybe Rudolph did wonder.
"Down deep he could be the most frustrated person on the team," Richardson said. "But when he shows up to work he doesn’t show that. He does what he’s asked to do. J.W. does the same thing."
All three coaches said the same thing about the two-quarterback balance: The Oklahoma State coaching staff was abundantly clear in what the plan was. No one was left in the dark. "J.W. was never wondering, 'Am I starting this week?' I think when players know that, and there’s not some false expectations, it makes it easier," Walsh said.
Yet, the rotation was almost nonexistent at first. Through three games against Central Michigan, Central Arkansas and UT-San Antonio, Rudolph was the clear quarterback. Walsh's packaged plays were limited to a few runs and sometimes passes per game.
A Sept. 26 game against Texas, though, sparked the first quarterback controversy. In a 30-27 win over the Longhorns, Rudolph threw two interceptions and was replaced, at least temporarily, by Walsh. Jenni Carlson of the Oklahoman summarized the potential issue this brought:
The quarterback carousel didn't cost OSU a victory at Texas, of course, but it's impossible to know the long-term costs with Rudolph. He played well in his first seven starts, oftentimes improving as games went on and doing his best work late when the pressure was highest. He even played well in the first half and then some Saturday. But after a couple bad possessions, the quarterback yo-yo begins. What happens the next time he starts to struggle? Will he be looking over his shoulder? What about his mentality late in a close game? Will he be given the chance to work through things and show that late-game kick to the finish line?
Gundy downplayed the notion of a controversy, but mentally, Rudolph had to make an adjustment. "I don’t think Mason was in this mindset of having to answer questions about two-platooning it at quarterback even in Week 1 and Week 2 of the season," Richardson said.
Rudolph speaks to his former coach at least once a week. About a month ago, Richardson said he told Rudolph he couldn't go "into press mode" and "counting snaps."
"Quarterback is a very difficult position to play and be looking over your shoulder of who’s going to come in. He could be thinking, 'I’m going to drive us 80 yards down the field, but when I get inside the 20-yard-line, there’s a good chance I’m going to come off the field.'
"Now, I'm not saying that's what he was doing," Richardson continued, "but he's grown from that into what he's become."
The two-quarterback rotation has flowed more easily since even though Walsh's role has increased. He scored the game-winning, overtime touchdown against West Virginia. In a 70-53 shootout victory over Texas Tech, Walsh threw for 167 yards, ran for another 80 and combined to score three touchdowns. He had the hot hand in the fourth quarter, so the Pokes let him ride.
It doesn't matter who's on the field. When Oklahoma State scores, both quarterbacks are ecstatic.
"There’s not a power struggle by any means," Walsh said. "I’m at the games. I’m watching the sidelines because it’s interesting to me. It’s a blessing for a coaching staff for two quarterbacks garnering that much respect."
Therein lies an under-appreciated part of what Oklahoma State is doing. It's not just the quarterbacks sacrificing for one another and the team; the entire locker room has bought into this.
In a way, it's easy to see why. Everyone on the team is sacrificing in some form. What this team sees in the quarterback situation is what it sees in itself. For instance: It's common for Oklahoma State to go with four or five receivers on offense. "All receivers want the ball on every play. Well, only one of 'em's going to get the ball," Richardson said.
But, this is a strong-willed team. On the sidelines, the Pokes follow the direction of both quarterbacks. Walsh is the vocal leader while Rudolph is more of a lead-by-example player. But the pair complement each other and don't infringe on someone else's moment.
"Both kids have earned the respect of their teammates," Walsh said. "From a coaching standpoint, it only works if there are results."
And there are. That much is undeniable.
How It Works
Richardson brought up an important distinction between what Oklahoma State is doing and what Ohio State did with J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones this year. In short, both teams have tried playing two quarterbacks. The difference is the Cowboys have essentially drawn up two different offenses while the Buckeyes tried to get two quarterbacks to run the same system.
"They're skinning the cat two different ways, as they say," Richardson said of Oklahoma State. "They’re not asking J.W. to do things Mason does, and the flip side of that is they’re not asking Mason to do what J.W. does. J.W’s running or play-action passing. The only run Mason will get is on the scramble.
"As a defense, you have to prepare for both of those guys. That’s where the staff’s done a great job. Whether J.W. plays 10 plays or five, that defense has to prepare for two totally different offenses during the week. And obviously J.W. is taking advantage of the snaps. That’s allowed his package of plays to grow more for him."
On the season Rudolph has accounted for 19 touchdowns, all but one coming through the air. Walsh has totaled 20—10 rushing and 10 passing. Walsh makes his mark on short third- and fourth-down situations and in the red zone where the run-pass option can be lethal. As a true pocket passer, Rudolph's thrived in longer third-down plays.
"There are certain schemes and plays we have in each game for J.W. and obviously plays for Mason," Gundy said. "Mason gets the majority of the plays. Sometimes J.W. plays more based on the team we’re playing and if we need that type of attack in the game."
"Situational preparation is done on Sundays and Mondays," Walsh added. "They have stuff well-determined going into Saturday."
Rudolph has attempted just six passes on third downs with one to three yards to go. That number jumps up to 23 attempts from four to six yards and rises to 33 attempts on third downs of 10 yards or longer. On the season, Rudolph is 54-of-88 on third-down passes for 857 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. His 162.60 passer rating in those situations is 13th nationally. Against Iowa State, in which Oklahoma State had to rally from a 24-7 deficit to win 35-31, the Pokes were 11-of-17 on third downs and 1-of-1 on fourth downs.
"That’s the hidden number behind the success of this offense," Richardson said. "Those third downs against Iowa State were huge keeping drives alive when you’re down."
And Oklahoma State has been down. A lot. With the exception of a 49-29 win over TCU, the Pokes have a knack for starting slow and picking up late. It's not the best formula for going undefeated, but Oklahoma State has shown a resiliency matched by few other teams.
With two games left before the playoff selection committee makes its final decision—against Baylor and Oklahoma—that resiliency will be tested harder than ever before. Oklahoma State can lean on not one, but two quarterbacks.
"It’s remarkable how they’ve done it," Walsh said. "My coach’s side, I’m thinking, 'Okay, Mason’s the starter. How’s this going to work?' You could predict something not being real cohesive, but it’s been the exact opposite."