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2010 Big Ten Football: The Year of the Quarterback

David Fidler Correspondent IJanuary 24, 2010

Big Ten football has always been about establishing the run. It has always been the conference of "three yards and a cloud of dust."

I would argue that hasn't really changed. Certainly, the means by which a team generates that running game has changed, but the primacy of a running game in the Big Ten has not diminished.

Consider Northwestern: They are as pass heavy an offense as any team in the conference. Yet, it was the absolute dearth of any running game that led to Northwestern having the second worst red-zone percentage in the conference at 76 percent.

And I assure you, Pat Fitzgerald was aware of that when he found himself in the Outback Bowl, in overtime, at the nine-yard line against Auburn.

The highest red-zone scoring percentage? Not surprisingly, Wisconsin, who had the best running game in the league. They scored in 91 percent of their red-zone attempts.

Nevertheless, in 2010 the success of many of the Big Ten's teams will begin and end with their quarterbacks. Quarterbacks whose efficiency and dependability will ultimately be crucial in setting up that Big Ten running game.

This will be particularly relevant in four teams that figure to be at the top of the league next season: OSU, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

All of these teams will be returning their starting quarterbacks from last year. Certainly, that is a luxury for any coach. However, every one of those starters struggled at some point last year and will need to step up his game.

To begin with, there is oft maligned Terrelle Pryor, the sophomore leader of the Big Ten champion Buckeyes.

Last year, Pryor took a lot of heat for the lack of effectiveness of the OSU offense. I think that was unfair, given that he was a young quarterback at the helm of a fairly young offense. It is not as though he was the only one out there.

Furthermore, he finished the year with a strong Rose Bowl game, passing for 266 yards and running for another 72.

Nevertheless, throwing 56 percent completion and 11 interceptions is not going to endear a quarterback to notoriously conservative coach Jim Tressel. Also, as good as he was in the Rose Bowl, he was not playing against a dominant defense. Moreover, that defense did not take advantage of many of the mistakes that Pryor made.

Next year's Buckeyes could and should be in the running for the national title. They will return 10 starters on offense and seven on defense.

Frankly, with those players returning and the talent OSU possesses, they should be able to walk on the field and win half of their games.

However, they have tough road games at Iowa and Wisconsin as well as an out-of-conference game against Miami (FL) and the end-of-the-year meeting with Michigan.

In order to win those, Terrell Pryor will need to be at a level that he has yet to reach.

As for Michigan, they missed a bowl game for the second year in a row.

A season that started extremely well for true freshman, Tate Forcier, ended in something of a mess. Michigan lost their last seven games played against FBS competition.

Obviously, Forcier—and his backup, Denard Robinson, who also took quite a few snaps—was not the only one to blame for this. However, the two quarterbacks combined for 10 interceptions compared to six touchdowns in those seven losses. That is not a recipe for success.

In 2010, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez's job depends on his young signal caller. If the Wolverines don't manage to at least make a bowl game, there is no way Rich Rod will see a fourth year in Ann Arbor.

Michigan will have eight starters returning on both sides of the ball. However, reaching that bowl game rests squarely on the shoulders of his quarterback.

Then there is Iowa, who, along with OSU, should be next year's favorite to win the Big Ten. Iowa's quarterback, Ricky Stanzi, is something of an enigma. Sometimes, it is as if he starts fires just to see if he can put them out.

In 11 games last year, Stanzi threw 15 interceptions. Four of those were pick sixes. I don't know how Kirk Ferentz, the second most notoriously conservative coach in the Big Ten, maintained his sanity, but he did.

Perhaps, Stanzi's ability to shake off those bad throws had something to do with it. Stanzi led Iowa to four fourth quarter comebacks on the year. His unflappability was uncanny.

Stanzi has some undeniable rough spots he has to clean up. He is also undeniably Iowa's emotional leader and the head of the offense.

Iowa will have seven offensive starters returning and eight defensive starters.

If Stanzi can turn that corner and eliminate some of those mistakes, Iowa will have a very good opportunity to put a lot of points on the board and smell the roses—and maybe more—for the first time since 1991.

Meanwhile, at Wisconsin, Scott Tolzien put together a quietly impressive year. In my opinion, he was the most improved quarterback in the league from the first game to the last.

Make no mistake, the focus of Wisconsin's offense is the run. They are the most traditional Big Ten team in the conference, relying on big, bruising tailbacks and huge, hard-nosed offensive linemen.

Wisconsin coach, Bret Bielema's gameplan is simple: Play four quarters and wear the opposing defense down. By the end of the game, John Clay—Wisconsin's starting tailback—should be able to waltz past the exhausted defensive line.

However, while Wisconsin's quarterback is not asked to do as much as other quarterbacks, when called upon, it is imperative that he perform.

This was no more evident than in last season's OSU and Iowa games. In those games, Wisconsin did what it wanted and established the run early. However, Tolzien's touchdown to interception ratio was 0:5. Moreover, two of those interceptions were pick-sixes, both against the Buckeyes.

In some fairness, John Clay got injured early in the Iowa game and was not the same when he came back. In effect, the team was put on Tolzien's shoulders. However, it was a home game, and his performance was proof that he wasn't up to the challenge.

Wisconsin returns 10 starters from a very strong offense, as well as six from the defense. Tolzien should have all the tools he needs to succeed. If he doesn't take advantage of them, expect Wisconsin to underachieve.

All indications are that the Big Ten will be be extremely competitive in 2010; probably the most competitive it's been since 2006.

Expectations will be set extremely high for Iowa, Michigan, OSU, and Wisconsin.

All four of these teams have very different styles and ask different things from their signal callers. Nevertheless, in order for each of these teams to live up their expectations, it will be imperative that each quarterback takes the next step in his progression.

Ultimately, they will be the difference between who is successful and who isn't.

Yes, the Big Ten is still a conference of "three yards and a cloud of dust." However, next season, as go the quarterbacks, so will go the team.

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