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September 22, 2006
Backup quarterbacks step in and step up
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For backup quarterbacks, bad breaks can turn into big breaks.
Most coaches would be apprehensive putting a former walk-on under center on the road, but not Louisville's Bobby Petrino.
Because of a thumb injury suffered by starting quarterback Brian Brohm, Hunter Cantwell will make his first start of the season Saturday at Kansas State. For the second time in two years, Cantwell is in familiar territory.
When Brohm went down with a torn ACL last season, it was Cantwell who started the final two games.
"The best thing is our team is used to playing with Hunter," Petrino said. "He played at Connecticut last year, he played the bowl game, going all through spring football and Hunter taking all the reps with the (first team) really helps - and helps the players' confidence in how well he can play."
Petrino can also take comfort in other backup quarterbacks who turned unintended playing time in 2005 into big-time results in 2006.
Oregon's Dennis Dixon, West Virginia's Pat White, Arizona State's Rudy Carpenter, Texas A&M's Stephen McGee and Utah's Brett Ratliff all began last season as backups before injuries forced them into brief roles as starters.
Those five and Cantwell were a combined 15-4 as starters last year. This year, they are a combined 14-1.
That record could be further padded by Cantwell thanks to the experienced gained last year in emergency duty. He won his first start at Connecticut last year but slipped in the Gator Bowl against Virginia Tech. He was 15 of 27 for 216 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions in the 35-24 loss.
Suddenly put on the spot in the Miami game when Brohm left in the third quarter, Cantwell said he was nervous but his experience against the Hokies helped calm him.
Petrino showed confidence in his backup quarterback by staying aggressive. Cantwell's first pass play was a 45-yard completion to Harry Douglas that set up a touchdown in the 31-7 win.
"It was a lot easier coming in this time than it was before the Gator Bowl," Cantwell said after the game. "Last year in the Gator Bowl, I felt like I took some thing away from the University of Louisville. It felt good to get out there and give something back."
No QB may have benefited from the unexpected starts more than Dixon. The junior was on track to replace Kellen Clemens at the start of 2006, but that plan was rushed when Clemens broke his ankle in the eighth game last season.
Dixon earned the remaining four starts but split time with Brady Leaf. Dixon claimed the 2006 starting job during fall practice.
"The difficult thing was losing Kellen," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "The silver lining on that dark cloud was both Dennis and Brady got extended experience starting in the Pac-10 and in a bowl game. (Dennis) has followed up during the summer and during fall camp with a tremendous amount of growth."
His growth was apparent Saturday against then-No. 15 Oklahoma. Rather than facing the Sooners in his third career start, the Oklahoma game was his seventh - including a previous start against the Sooners in the Holiday Bowl.
Faced with a 33-20 deficit with 3:12 remaining, Dixon - although aided by a controversial onside kick and pass interference call - engineered the Ducks' comeback.
During the fourth quarter, Dixon kept his cool despite throwing his first two interceptions of the year. On Oregon's last two possessions, he was 6-for-7 for 89 yards. He also had two carries for 22 yards and a touchdown in the 34-33 win.
The comeback might not have been possible if not for the injury to Clemens last season.
It wasn't just Dixon's comfort level that increased in those starts last year, it was the coaches' comfort level with Dixon. In 2005, first-year coordinator Gary Crowton suddenly had a more potent run-pass threat in his offense when Dixon replaced Clemens. By the time of the Oklahoma game, Crowton had tailored the offense more to Dixon's strengths.
"Coach Bellotti had a scheme that fit Kellen," Dixon said. "This year it's a system we've adapted to well. They've been fitting the offense to me and Brady."
Said Bellotti: "We're more comfortable with what we want our system to do and we're more comfortable teaching it. Certainly Dennis has been the beneficiary"
At Texas A&M, McGee was in a situation similar to Dixon's when he suddenly found himself the starting quarterback for the Aggies.
Departing senior Reggie McNeal sat out the finale last season with a sprained ankle, leaving McGee to gut out a 40-29 loss to Texas.
While Dixon and McGee got head starts last year as starters, White and Carpenter used the opportunity to become more than just fill-ins.
Both earned their jobs outright when former starters Adam Bednarik and Sam Keller returned from injuries. Neither former starter will play with the teams this year. Bednarik is recovering from shoulder surgery while Keller transferred to Nebraska.
At Utah, Ratliff replaced Brian Johnson last year and won his two starts - including the Emerald Bowl against Georgia Tech - last year while putting up 722 yards of total offense and eight total touchdowns.
The senior's progress, combined with the presence of Oklahoma transfer Tommy Grady, made it unnecessary for the Utes to rush Johnson back from the ACL injury that put Ratliff in the starting role.
"There's no question he hit the ground running this year," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The experience he gained was invaluable in getting started this year."
CardinalSports.com contributed to this report.