Loren Tate: QB uncertainty? You bet
Are quarterbacks that important? Do they operate separately from the rest of the team?
Sometimes it appears that way. In the last dozen years, quarterbacks have won 11 Heisman trophies. And when Big Ten coaches conducted news conferences Tuesday, QB talk ruled the day, even if the speakers didn’t prefer it.
“When Saturday’s game starts (vs. Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J.), everybody will know who our quarterback is,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. Until then, his call between freshman Christian Hackenberg and sophomore Tyler Ferguson will be his secret.
Indiana coach Kevin Wilson also is keeping quiet until Thursday night’s date against Indiana State.
“We have three guys, and there’s no separation,” he said, referring to 2012 starter Cam Coffman, 2012 redshirt Tre Roberson and sophomore Nate Sudfeld.
“We don’t want a revolving door,” Wilson said. “We do want to see a guy separate himself. The position must be dynamic for us to succeed. For now, it would be a subjective opinion.”
And then there’s new Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. He’s down to sophomore Joel Stave and senior Curt Phillips, and says, “There’s no need to put bells and whistles on quarterback. That’s just one part of a functioning program. It hasn’t been a distraction. We’ll all know together.”
Around the league, only four QB starters appeared entrenched coming out of spring ball. OK, maybe a couple of others. But the four clear ones were All-America candidates Braxton Miller (Ohio State) and Taylor Martinez (Nebraska), senior Nathan Scheelhaase (Illinois) and junior Devin Gardner, who took over late last season for Michigan star Denard Robinson.
You might add Minnesota sophomore Philip Nelson to that list because he tossed away his redshirt in the last half of 2012 and has no upperclassman competition.
And then there’s Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald who’ll again rotate senior Kain Colter and junior Trevor Siemian ... a system that many QB gurus frown on.
At Michigan State, senior Andrew Maxwell’s experience allowed him to prevail in a four-way duel, but coach Mark Dantonio guaranteed playing time for Connor Cook on Friday against Western Michigan.
At Iowa, sophomore Jake Rudock is ahead in a three-man race to succeed James Vandenberg.
At Purdue, it appears fifth-year returnee Rob Henry beat out redshirt Austin Appleby and Terre Haute freshman Danny Etling ... at least for now.
Who knows what will happen as Purdue wades through the toughest early-season schedule in the nation? Three nonconference foes — Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois — had a combined pre-bowl record of 33-4 in 2012. And coach Darrell Hazell’s first four Big Ten foes are Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State.
The games are upon us, and insiders say Indiana is poised to make a move.
The oddsmakers agree by making the Hoosiers 24-point favorites against an Indiana State club that played them within 24-17 last season. In fact, in a scoreless fourth quarter, the Sycamores penetrated IU territory in the last three series but didn’t score.
From that opener, Indiana got better, only to wind up in a tailspin, allowing 163 points in the final losses to Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue. They face an Indiana State team that returns a 1,615-yard passer in Mike Perish and a breakaway senior, Shakir Bell, who rushed for 3,145 yards the last two years.
Bill Cubit’s decision to call Illini offensive plays from the sideline is based on multiple factors: (1) There’s a comfort factor, having operated there in the last eight years as head coach at Western Michigan, (2) he now has the advantage of being able to talk directly to players coming off the field, as opposed to a head coach’s responsibility of shifting attention to the defense, (3) he can make calls quicker from the sideline than the press box.
“It’s better communicationwise,” Cubit said. “This will be the first time in a while that I can talk directly to the guys and diagram plays. And I like to ask Nate and others what they think, what they’re comfortable with. It’s not the same when you’re up in the press box.
“We don’t have an hour to fix things. And if you’re up there, you might get the quarterback on the phone but you don’t have time to talk to the wide receivers.
“We have to react to what the defense is doing. If they’re taking something away, we have to do something else. Everything is predicated on what the defense is doing.”
Fields of dreams
How valuable is the home field?
Two teams of interest, Washington and Iowa, are given a field goal nod because of familiar surroundings.
The Huskies, who face Illinois on Sept. 14 in Chicago, are 31/2-point picks against No. 19 Boise State on Saturday. In Iowa City, the Hawkeyes are three-point favorites over Northern Illinois, which won 12 straight last season after dropping an 18-17 opener to Iowa in Chicago. A Soldier Field crowd of 52,117 watched the Hawkeyes rally from a 17-9 deficit in the fourth quarter with a field goal and, with 2:15 remaining, a 23-yard TD run by Damon Bullock.
Iowans are wondering: Can Kirk Ferentz bring the Hawkeyes back from a 4-8 season that found them losing 9-6 to Iowa State in the second week, one of five losses by six points or less.
— Cal has Northwestern guessing. Sonny Dykes, who ran an explosive offense at Louisiana Tech last season, will have a raw freshman, Jared Goff, calling signals as the Bears install his quick-hitting attack. Said Fitzgerald: “It’s a challenge to get a read on what they’ll do. We have to be ready to adjust.”
— In addition to the 100th Rose Bowl, the Big Ten is linked to Jan. 1 bowls in Florida (three) and Dallas, and others in Houston, Detroit and Tempe, Ariz. That’s eight opportunities for conference teams that win at least six games.
— Four former Illini coaches — Vic Koenning, Dan Disch, Ron West and Keith Gilmore — will handle defensive assignments Thursday when North Carolina tries to slow Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina juggernaut. Koenning is 3-1 vs. Spurrier but is a 12-point underdog this time.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.