Tate: Big Ten QBs have been passed up

Tate: Big Ten QBs have been passed up

College quarterbacks live in different worlds.

They're pass-happy in the West-Southwest. From coast to coast, eight passers have thrown for 300-plus yards. The dominant region offers Case Keenum of Houston (402), Landry Jones of Oklahoma (387), Nick Foles of Arizona (367), Seth Doege of Texas Tech (347) and Robert Griffin of Baylor (339). That group doesn't include Stanford's Andrew Luck and Boise State's Kellen Moore, regarded by some as the best two quarterbacks in the nation.

Midwestern quarterbacks, and especially the Big Ten variety, go about their business in a different manner. In many cases, they run first and pass second. Of 62 athletes averaging at least 200 aerial yards, only four represent the Big Ten. The conference leader in completions, Kirk Cousins of Michigan State, is 50th nationally with 18 per game.

That, of course, isn't the whole story. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is readying for Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and is quick to point out: "It is tough preparing for athletic, dual-threat quarterbacks. Every time Nebraska snaps the ball, Martinez is capable of scoring in different ways. He is explosive."

Other Big Ten coaches chime in.

"We face another one this week in Dan Persa," Nebraska's Bo Pelini said. "He can throw, and he puts a lot of stress on you with his feet. Mobile quarterbacks always add another element, and that balance creates more issues for the defense."

Preparing for Michigan, coach Kirk Ferentz of Iowa said: "When you have a dynamic player like Denard Robinson and he is surrounded by outstanding athletes, they can hurt you in a lot of different ways."

And Michigan State's Mark Dantonio points out: "Mobile players like MarQueis Gray (Minnesota) can take a bad play and make it a good one, either by changing at the line of scrimmage or by running when the pass play breaks down."

Running on empty

OK, you get the point.

The Big Ten remains a running conference. Five of the leading QBs — Robinson, Martinez, Gray, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase — are ball carriers first. Robinson is averaging 103 yards rushing but was stifled by Michigan State, hitting 9 of 24 passes that day. These athletes don't fit the NFL style and won't be high draft picks at their favorite position.

Only one Big Ten quarterback is mentioned among the nation's elite. It is Wisconsin's good fortune to have landed senior transfer Russell Wilson from North Carolina State, and he leads the Big Ten with 254 aerial yards per game. But consecutive heartbreaking losses have caused his star to fall.

Elsewhere, Persa's season has been limited as he recovers from Achilles surgery, Purdue's Caleb TerBush has been erratic and was replaced by Robert Marve midway in Saturday's loss to Michigan, and Iowa's James Vandenberg has seen his season foiled by losses to Iowa State, Penn State and Minnesota. And while Penn State remains unbeaten in the Big Ten, optimism is limited in Happy Valley as coach Joe Paterno returned to alternating and generally inept QBs in a 10-7 win against Illinois.

Some say the UI-Penn State tug-of-war, played in snowy conditions, set back the game by decades. Or maybe we're not giving Big Ten defenses enough credit. We'll learn more about where the Big Ten fits when the bowl games roll around. But this we know: The ball is being thrown more accurately elsewhere.

Tate's tidbits

— Informed that Big Ten road teams are 8-18 so far, Dantonio said: "We went to Penn State in 2008 without the mind-set and experience, and we lost. We had those elements on our side in 2010 and we won. You've got to get the same adrenaline rush on the road that you get from the home crowd."

— In explaining Saturday's onside kick with 8:22 to go, Gophers coach Jerry Kill said: "Iowa had so dominated the third quarter that I didn't feel we could hold up defensively. It was the only chance we had." Iowa had the ball for only five snaps in the last 14 minutes as Minnesota scored twice on time-consuming drives to win 22-21.

— Who said Illinois has a starless defense? Versatile linebacker Jonathan Brown (he's everywhere!) is averaging 12.5 tackles in four conference games, a number topped only by Wisconsin's Mike Taylor (14.0). And in nine games, end Whitney Mercilus has nearly twice as many sacks (11.5) as runners-up (and teammate) Michael Buchanan and Michigan State's Denicos Allen (6.0).

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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