Published Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 10:30 pm / Updated at 11:48 pm
Barfknecht: Big Ten QB play has been disappointment so far

Big Ten football was supposed to be better this season, the experts told us this summer, and the reason was better quarterback play.

Instead, after six weeks, Big Ten football is worse than a year ago — that hurts to type those words, but my eyes aren't lying to me — and the reason is lesser quarterback play.

Ohio State's Braxton Miller, No. 5 in the Heisman Trophy voting a year ago and the media's 2012 league offensive player of the year, suffered a sprained knee early in the season's second game.

He sat out games three and four, then returned to play well in a win over Wisconsin. But last week at Northwestern, Miller was so mistake-prone that Buckeye coach Urban Meyer said he strongly considered switching to fifth-year backup Kenny Guiton.

Miller also hasn't shown the jump-cuts or the explosive running bursts that he has before.

Meyer said Tuesday he thinks Miller is 100 percent, but that the play-calling for him has been conservative because of the injury. Also, discussions are ongoing about using Guiton as a changeup in each game “because we like him,” Meyer said.

At Nebraska, four-year starter Taylor Martinez, the Big Ten coaches' pick for offensive player of the year, committed two fourth-quarter turnovers in the opening three-point win over Wyoming.

Two weeks later against UCLA, playing with turf toe, Martinez was mostly ineffective in a 41-21 loss. He hasn't played since because of his injury and sounds doubtful for Saturday at Purdue.

In fact, in listening to the conversations about the offense going forward, it's as if Martinez is an afterthought.

At Michigan, fourth-year junior Devin Gardner looked like the second coming in a prime-time win over Notre Dame, rolling up 376 yards of total offense and five touchdowns.

Since then, he has looked like a second-stringer: three interceptions and 53 percent passing against lowly Akron, then two interceptions, a lost fumble and 48 percent passing against Connecticut, which fired its coach the next day.

Get the latest Big Ten headlines from The World-Herald and from beat writers around the nation.

At Minnesota, sophomore Philip Nelson started the season No. 1, then was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Nelson returned two weeks ago against Iowa, but was so ineffective that backup Mitch Leidner started last week at Michigan.

Regardless of the quarterback, the Gophers are 106th nationally in total offense and 119th out of 125 teams in passing, with three touchdown passes and five interceptions.

At Purdue, true freshman Danny Etling will make his first collegiate start against Nebraska, replacing fifth-year senior Rob Henry. He moved to safety after struggling to run the West Coast offense installed by first-year coach Darrell Hazell.

And at Michigan State, senior Andrew Maxwell returned this season as the starter. But in the first two games, the Spartan offense was outscored by its defense four touchdowns to two.

That led to a quarterback carousel of Maxwell, sophomore Connor Cook and redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor, with the threat of pulling the redshirt off of true freshman Damion Terry.

Now, Cook appears to have settled in with a fair showing in a close loss at Notre Dame and a strong effort in last week's win over Iowa.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio on Tuesday declared the situation resolved, even though MSU still has only three pass completions this season longer than 20 yards.

“We've seen consistency from Connor Cook, and we're excited about his progress,” the coach said. “I'm pretty confident he's going to continue to raise his level of play.

“He's getting more comfortable. When he gets to where he is extremely comfortable, you'll see an outstanding quarterback who can do a lot of things.”

With the No. 1 defense in the country, allowing 203 yards a game, Michigan State should be in the Legends Division race to the end if it gets even serviceable quarterback play. The schedule also is favorable, and the Spartans already have a Big Ten road win.

“We haven't played our best football yet, but we're coming,” Dantonio said. “I've always said when our offense gets a little more confident, things are going to blossom.”

* * *

Video: The Big Red Today Show, Oct. 8

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.



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