By JOHN SEARS * BIG TEN INSIDER
As it stands, the Big Ten’s identity, or identity crisis, has recently been described politely as “smash-mouth” or impolitely as “slow”, “vanilla”, or “pig-wrestling in a corn field”. Last year further supported such monikers as only one quarterback passed for over 3,000 yards (Illinois Juice Williams with 3,173) or more than 20 touchdowns (Williams again with 22). Big Ten quarterbacks yielded only two members of the 1,000-yard receiving club (Minnesota’s Eric Decker with 1,074 yards, Illinois’ Arrelious Benn with 1,055). In contrast, six teams were represented by running backs that racked up at least 1,100 yards rushing, maxing out at 1,850 by Iowa’s Shonn Greene and 2,045 yards by Wisconsin’s tandem of P.J. Hill and John Clay. Five backs rushed for over ten touchdowns and two (Greene with 20 and Michigan State’s Javon Ringer with 22) hit pay dirt at least 20 times. Let’s just call 2008 a year that slanted toward the run. Fair enough?
Check opening day, 2009, for these same teams and you will find that quarterbacks are taking center stage in piling up notable statistics and more importantly, driving their team’s success. Against modest opponents to be sure, but the quarterbacks showed they may be destined take the spotlight off of Big Ten running backs. Consider: Michigan State rolled out unproven quarterbacks that just so happened to combine for 318 yards, five touchdowns, and zero interceptions (Keith Nichol: 9/18, 135 yards, 2 touchdowns, Kirk Cousins: 10/17, 183, 3) in a 44-3 drubbing of Montana State. The Spartans seem to have a most delightful quarterback controversy to start the season, but the maize and blue also swapped out a pair of freshmen who dazzled in complementary fashions. Tate Forcier, in what amounted to a half a game, completed 65 percent of his passes (13/20) for 179 yards, three scores, and no giveaways. Dernard Robinson, on the other hand, scored by fleeted foot, seemingly (un)tied to an ACME rocket as he scorched the Western Michigan defense on a 42-yard quarterback keeper. Michigan trounced the Broncos, 31-7.
And let’s not forget that the leader of last year’s conference champs, Penn State’s Daryll Clark, has returned for one final go-around. Despite losing his dominant receiving trio of 2008, Clark played well in a breezy win against Akron (31-7) in the presence of a sluggish running game, tossing the pigskin for 353 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Even the perennial ground-grinders in Madison managed 281 yards throwing (Scott Tulzien 15/20, 257 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) in their opening 28-20 win over Northern Illinois. Indiana’s Ben Chappell did eclipse 300 yards (27/36, 326 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) in a sleepy victory over Eastern Kentucky 19-13.
Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi (242 yards) and Minnesota’s Adam Weber (248 yards), in pedestrian performances in sloppy wins over Northern Iowa and Syracuse respectively, still managed almost 250 yards through the air and one touchdown apiece. Northwestern pieced together 264 yards through the air and a score between Mike Kafka and Dan Persa in a 47-14 runaway victory over Towson. And Joey Elliott of Purdue showed magnificent technique handing the ball off 36 times for 320 yards, mostly to Ralph Bolden (21-234, two touchdowns). When needed, Elliott also tossed three touchdowns in a score-fest 52-31 victory over Toledo. All this success by Big Ten quarterbacks without mentioning the two (Williams, Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor) picked to be top performers and potential award winners at season’s end? Pryor, in a too-close-for-comfort win over Navy, combined for 204 yards and two scores…but it would have been nice to see him go without an interception on opening day with a Trojan invasion coming quickly. Williams, with the potential excuse that his number one target (Benn) and running back (Jason Ford) were unavailable for the second half, struggled to combine for 206 yards and one interception in a disappointing loss to Missouri, 37-9.
I am confident Williams and Pryor will improve upon their numbers last week and provide game-changing abilities week-in and week-out in the coming months. What’s more intriguing are the abilities shown by the rest of the conference’s gunslingers. Can the signal callers help the conference turn the corner offensively with some high octane, or will the Big Ten still be sitting around in the pig pen asking, “Who’s next?” come season’s end?
Photos Courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletic Communications, Iowa Sports Information
Thursday, September 10, 2009
By JOHN SEARS * BIG TEN INSIDER