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College Teams Thu Sep 08 2011

Big Ten Keeps Quarterbacks on the Move

big ten divisions vertical.JPGMichigan's Rich Rodriguez experiment was even shorter than we expected. The since-fired head coach who brought his up-tempo option attack from the Big East seemed to be on the cusp of realizing his vision last season when quarterback Denard Robinson was leading Heisman talks and running up 300-400 yards of offense against whatever defense felt like strapping up that day.

That is, until Robinson got injured and then tried running through a slate of actual Big Ten opponents. It didn't take too long for Michigan higher-ups to connect the dots on Rodriguez's scheme: A mobile quarterback just can't hack it with the Big Ten's elite anymore.

That lesson might seem counterintuitive at first, because the most common (and the most apt) knock against the Big Ten's style of ball is that it's seemingly stuck in 1906, struggling to adapt to the forward pass and the offensive agility that goes with it.

That's a disingenuous critique of this situation, though, and it's mostly false. Because it's true that Big Ten offenses tend to have oversimplified passing schemes and frequently appear incompetent when executing even those.

But what we can learn from Rodriguez's mistakes is that the difference between which of these offensive schemes will be successful comes down to the difference between a "dual-threat" quarterback and just a "mobile" one.

The difference is two-fold. Dual-threat quarterbacks emphasize the passing aspect of their games and only rely on their legs to improvise, which keeps the defense off-balance even after the play is in motion. Dual-threat quarterbacks also pick and choose when to run, which minimizes hard contact situations and thus increases their durability.

A few teams have already figured it out. Heck, even Robinson is undergoing a change. In the Wolverines' opening win over Western Michigan last week, Robinson threw 13 passes and rushed only eight times, despite playing in unfavorable weather conditions. Last season, he attempted more throws than runs in only five games, three of which were losses and another was one of the three games in which Robinson was forced to leave early after sustaining an injury.

With the alarming prevalence of injuries to mobile quarterbacks, it's a curious decision by the Nebraska coaching staff not to pull in the reins on quarterback Taylor Martinez thus far. He rushed the ball 19 times last week for 135 yards and three touchdowns, compiling 19 more yards than he did through the air in 22 throws.

Last year the Cornhuskers covered Martinez's back by sharing the workload with the running back tandem of Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead, but that approach turned from a security blanket to a necessary backup plan when Martinez was injured for more than two games of action. This year, however, it will be up to Burkhead to cover that role alone, as Nebraska seems convinced they can keep running the same old offense they did in the '90s with Tommie Frazier.

Northwestern is lucky enough to have a competent mobile backup in Kain Colter while Dan Persa is still recovering from last year's ruptured Achilles' tendon, but Persa actually is much more similar to Wisconsin's Russell Wilson.

Last season Wilson was one of two NCAA quarterbacks with at least 25 passing touchdowns and nine rushing touchdowns, the other being Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. But more than anyone else in the Big Ten, Wilson is the definitive dual-threat playmaker.

In his first game with the Badgers, the North Carolina State transfer tucked the ball just twice, but racked up 62 yards and a touchdown -- which makes for 92 yards more than last year's starter Scott Tolzien had all season. Much of the credit for that must go to the offensive line, which produced four other rushing touchdowns that evening, but Wilson's ability to stretch defenses with his arm while either rolling out or sitting in the pocket helps him exploit defenses on the ground -- and vice-versa.

Wilson is one of many dual-threat quarterbacks that Big Ten defenses will have to worry about. But I think what we'll see this year and beyond in the Big Ten is that the teams that are able to employ a dual-threat quarterback instead of just a mobile one will see much more success once the rubber hits the road against some really elite defenses.

 
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