Two starts. Two wins.
The Tanner Gustavsen era at quarterback – one that was unexpected this season, but has been solid – is well underway for the Saints.
The question going forward: Will it continue this season?
Gustavsen has played a big part in the Saints’ wins over Rocky Mountain (28-14) and on Saturday against MSU-Northern (49-14). He’s taking major steps forward since being inserted into the lineup at points earlier in the season. In spot duty against Montana Tech when senior starter JT Linder went down with an ankle injury, Gustavsen came in and jump-started the Saints’ offense, throwing two touchdowns to go along with a pick and a fumble.
When asked by a member of the media on Saturday whether Linder or Gustavsen would start if both were healthy, Van Diest pointed at the Dallas Cowboys quarterback conundrum. The team keeps winning with rookie Dak Prescott, but some think four-time Pro Bowler Tony Romo could be the right move after he comes back from a back injury.
“Ask Jerry Jones,” Van Diest wryly said.
Gustavsen has thrown for 492 yards, completing 37 of 57 passes (65 percent completed) for seven touchdowns and one interception in five games played (two starts).
Linder, in six starts, has thrown for 1086 yards, completing 87 of 166 passes (52 percent) for six touchdowns and five interceptions.
Linder warmed up in the Saints game against the Lights, but did not play. He’s been cleared to practice, go through drills and take snaps. Linder will continue to speak with trainers and have certain types of warmups to test himself and ensure he’s improved physically from the week prior before he sees field time. His return to a playable condition is near, which will mean Saints’ coaches will be faced with a decision whether to bring the senior back to the lineup or allow Gustavsen to keep playing his hot hand.
If Linder is healthy, does the team allow him to finish out the season with his fellow seniors, a testament to the work he’s put in during his time at Carroll?
Or do the Saints look to the future and allow their junior from Boise, Idaho -- Gustavsen -- to continue successfully developing on the field?
Van Diest said the evaluation of the quarterbacks is a day-by-day situation, one that will not be decided until Saturday. Linder and Gustavsen will split reps in practice, running plays with the No. 1 and No. 2 players on the depth chart. Van Diest didn’t see having to choose between the two – assuming both are healthy to play on Saturday – as a dilemma, but rather a “blessing.”
“The dilemma is when you don’t have two of them,” Van Diest said Monday. “I don’t think it’s a dilemma. Both of them will be mentally ready. We’ll see how physically ready JT will be ready by Saturday.”
A known before Saturday: Van Diest said quarterback is not a position where you try to go to a two-quarterback system, comparing how many offenses can defer to a two- or three-headed rushing attack and find success.
Van Diest said the true dilemma is having only one starting caliber quarterback available, a dire situation should an injury occur. He said having Linder behind Mac Roche a season ago created a better environment.
Roche started every game for the Saints last season, and sees football as many see the NFL -- a “what can you do for me now” business. He said both Linder and Gustavsen are his “boys,” but, as a former Saints quarterback, he knows that leaving the field and slightly cracking the window can be all it takes for things to change at the position.
“I feel bad for JT because he got injured and he couldn't control that,” said Roche, who is now coaching and teaching at Loyola High School and training to play professionally in Australia. “But as a QB, you can't let your backup see the field (because) you never know when he is gonna ball out and take your job, the Doug Flutie Rule."
The two quarterbacks have been pivotal in each other’s success on the field, and each has piloted the Saints to a pair of wins this season.
Gustavsen’s performance in Carroll’s recent win earned praise from his teammates.
“I think we were super impressed when he came out that first week against Tech,” Saints star receiver Connor Fohn said of Gustavsen’s play after the Saints defeated MSU-Northern on Saturday. “I think we were super impressed when he came out that first week against Tech. He wasn’t expecting to come in necessarily. He came out and was cool and knew we were going to come out and score and that’s what we did.”
Against Rocky, he provided enough passing yards to complement Carroll’s staggering rushing attack.
On Saturday against MSU-Northern, Gustavsen threw for four first-half touchdowns on his way to 243 yards, completing 17 of 22 passes.
Carroll receiver Troy Arntson was the recipient of several big-time Gustavsen passes on Saturday, finishing with 106 yards receiving and two touchdowns. When he was asked how Gustavsen and Linder compared, he saw positives in both.
“They’re both extremely good quarterbacks,” Arntson said.” They’re both so fun to play with. The one thing: Tanner did a great job today -- once he gets out of that pocket anything can happen. That sparked us a little bit, even if we’re covered on a play and he starts to scramble, there’s a hope there that we can get open and he can find us downfield. I think that’s one thing that Tanner brings to the table and that’s awesome.”
Gustavsen has come in and alleviated stress on the offense. His demeanor and command of the offense has allowed the Saints to be confident they can score every time the unit has the ball. Gustavsen truly believes the offense will score every possession and he doesn’t see Carroll’s 35-0 first half against MSU-Northern as an anomaly. He sees it as the norm.
Under Gustavsen, the Saints accomplished a new feat: scoring on their first drive of the game.
“He definitely plays with a lot of poise,” Fohn said. “He has that cool-guy mentality a lot of the time. He’s able to relax and keep us calmed out there. I think him having a couple weeks of practice being the starting guy has helped him a ton. Since the start, he’s a great quarterback and a great athlete. He’s making the right throws.”
Scoring early pays dividends for the defense, too. When the Saints give the defense a lead, the defense has more opportunities to harass the quarterback and move the opposition away from the rushing attack. Alec Basterrechea -- who finished on Saturday with seven total tackles, five for a loss, and a sack – said he prefers to be the first one making plays on the field, but noted the benefit from playing with a lead and the continuity the offense has developed.
“Seeing our offense, definitely feeding off those guys,” Basterrechea said. “Tanner Gustavsen (is) making big plays with Connor Fohn. Our running backs are playing great. Our O-line is moving the line of scrimmage. It’s been great to watch those guys and enjoy what our offensive has put together.”
Two quarterbacks. Two wins a piece. Two games left this season.
Who knows who will get two more shots?