B1G QB Power Rankings, Week 2: Wisconsin has itself a quarterback
Breaking down everything you need to know about the Big Ten’s quarterbacks.
1. Justin Fields, Ohio State
It would be fun to see a team get into a shootout with Ohio State, just to see what kind of numbers Fields would put up. With Ohio State up big, Fields settled for going 20 of 21 passing for 276 yards and 2 TDs. Fields was in command all game, making only one questionable throw — and it resulted in a pass interference penalty anyways. He made every kind of throw — from the pocket, rolling out, deep, short.
Last season, he attempted between 19 and 25 passes in every regular season game, mostly because Ohio State always led by so much. I thought Penn State and Indiana may be able to put up some points, but those offenses did not look great in the opener. Our best chance to see Fields unleashed for a full 60 minutes may be Michigan — partly because it’s Michigan and partly because the Wolverines look to be much improved offensively.
It’ll be fun to watch Fields against Penn State, which played an excellent defensive game against Indiana in holding the Hoosiers to 211 yards — their worst offensive game since 2014.
(Last week: 1)
2. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin
The first redshirt freshman to start at QB for Wisconsin in 42 years, Mertz backed up the lofty recruiting ranking and showed why so many had been looking forward to him getting his chance. All he did was complete his first 17 passes and finish 20-of-21, as he tied or broke 3 Wisconsin records.
I had a feeling this was going to be a special performance on that 1st drive when Wisconsin — a team long known for its punishing offensive line and dominant run game — called a play action on 3rd-and-1. Paul Chryst already trusts Mertz, who executed that play perfectly for the first of his 5 TD passes. Mertz is just the third Big Ten quarterback since 2000 to have 5 TD passes on 21 or fewer passes, joining J.T. Barrett and Rashard Casey.
The other notable sequence was when Wisconsin got the ball back late in the first half. Instead of trying to get into field goal range, Mertz launched a 54-yard bomb to Danny Davis. It’s a little unsettling to see a Wisconsin aerial attack so locked in, but Mertz looked like a natural. He was spotted smiling on the sidelines, like he knew this was coming all along and we’re all just finding out about him now.
What’s next? Well, Mertz reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, so we’ll see if he tests positive again. If he does, he’ll be sidelined 21 days.
(Last week: 9)
3. Peyton Ramsey, Northwestern
This was Ramsey’s 23rd appearance in a Big Ten game, and he has never had a higher completion percentage than the 76.7 he finished with in his Northwestern debut. Sure, it was just Maryland, so let’s temper expectations a little, but Ramsey picked up right where he left off last season.
His numbers weren’t crazy or anything, but Northwestern got up big early and Ramsey didn’t have to do too much. Of note, he now has 5 straight games with a rushing TD. Let’s reserve judgement on Mike Bajakian’s offense for now, but so far, so good.
(Last week: 5)
4. Joe Milton, Michigan
His first start went very, very well. Milton averaged 10.2 yards per attempt and completed 68 percent of his throws. There were a few times when Milton unleashed that freaky arm strength that everyone has been talking about. One of them was when he was rolling to his left and snapped off a throw toward the pylon that Giles Jackson almost came up with.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how this offense evolves over time. Milton completed passes to 9 receivers, 6 of whom are freshmen or sophomores. While the speed is great at receiver, my only concern is that Michigan does not have a big guy like Nico Collins that would’ve been an asset on third down. We’ll see if it affects Milton.
(Last week: 7)
5. Sean Clifford, Penn State
Look, if Penn State runs out the clock like it is supposed to, if the refs make the correct call on the 2-point conversion at the end or if the Nittany Lions didn’t miss 3 field goals, everyone is patting Clifford on the back for leading a gritty comeback against an up-and-coming program. But when things Clifford can’t control go poorly, the narrative changes. That’s reality as the QB.
It doesn’t take away from what Clifford did. His 35-yard TD run was terrific. The deep shot to Jahan Dotson with 2:39 left should have been the game-winner.
That said, Clifford has to clean up some things. He sailed a screen pass for an interception and he sailed a crossing route to Pat Freiermuth for another.
Clifford is going to be asked to do a ton this season, and we’re really going to see what kind of player he is. At this time one year ago, Penn State had four stud running backs whom it was rotating. Devyn Ford is the only one left after Noah Cain exited in the first quarter. As a result, Clifford threw 35 passes, a mark he hit only once last season, and he ran a career-high 17 times. Penn State has real question marks at wide receiver, so let’s see if Clifford can help bring that young crew along.
(Last week: 3)
6. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
Morgan was undeniably off in the opener, as it was probably his worst game since 2018. It was hard to tell exactly what the issue was with such a small sample size, but he is working with a new offensive coordinator in Mike Sanford. Morgan didn’t take many deep shots, which was a big part of Minnesota’s offense last season.
It’s just one game, so I’ll resist the urge to overreact. It’s worth noting that Michigan’s secondary looks to be very good. I really thought Chris Autman-Bell was headed for a big season, and he did get loose for a 45-yard gain, but that was his only catch. Morgan force-fed Bateman, which is perfectly acceptable, but getting Autman-Bell going may loosen up this offense, which benefitted from an early blocked punt and had trouble containing Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson.
(Last week: 2)
7. Michael Penix Jr., Indiana
The first 58 minutes of regulation were ugly. Penix missed throw after throw. But give the redshirt sophomore some credit for hanging in there and putting together a flawless final drive of regulation and showing incredible determination in overtime. That’s the stuff winners are made of and that teammates rally around. In his first start against a ranked team, Penix found a way to get it done.
That said, Penix needs to play better. A whole lot better. He was very inaccurate and wound up completing only 52 percent of his passes — just the second time in 10 career games that he has completed under 60 percent. After averaging 8.7 yards per pass attempt, he was at only 4.7 per attempt on Saturday. Indiana couldn’t do much of anything against what looks like a very good Penn State defense, as it had only 211 yards. There are better days ahead for the Indiana offense, I think.
(Last week: 4)
8. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
Martinez once again used his legs very well, even if he had a bad fumble that was returned for a TD. He needs to be more responsible with the ball, as Joel Klatt pointed out during the broadcast.
Martinez may never be a passer like Fields or Mertz, but I thought he handled himself well. For whatever reason, he whipped one past Kade Werner on 3rd-and-goal for what should have been an easy TD, and he probably shouldn’t have challenged Shaun Wade on a deep ball, but all in all, Martinez was good enough. And that may be all he needs in order to supplement his running ability.
There will be better days for Martinez, and he should feel good about completing 12 of 15 passes. Do you know in how many games Martinez completed more than 65 percent of his passes? Zero.
That said, it’s obviously going to be interesting to track Luke McCaffrey’s development. Nebraska used him like the Saints use Taysom Hill. What McCaffrey did on Saturday — 55 passing yards, 87 rushing yards and 5 receiving yards — hadn’t been done since 2018. McCaffrey is lurking and is just as good of a runner as Martinez. If he shows in practice or in spot duty during a game that he’s developing into a better passer than Martinez, Scott Frost may pull the trigger on the talented redshirt freshman.
For now, Martinez says battling with McCaffrey has energized him. We’ll see.
(Last week: 6)
9. Aidan O’Connell, Purdue
Purdue quarterbacks are destined to put up big numbers because of the sheer volume that they pass. O’Connell attempted 52 passes against Iowa, and that wasn’t surprising; Purdue averaged 50 pass attempts per game last season.
It’s what you do with them that matters, and I’ll say this for O’Connell, he knows where his bread is buttered. Without Rondale Moore, O’Connell fed David Bell for 13 catches, 121 yards, 3 TDs and 1 Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week. Hard to fault O’Connell’s logic.
Whenever Moore is back in the lineup, he’ll have a chance to put up monster numbers. With or without Moore, O’Connell could have a huge game against an Illinois defense that just allowed 5 passing TDs.
(Last week: 11)
10. Spencer Petras, Iowa
With how well Iowa ran the ball, Petras could have elevated the Hawkeyes to a win at Purdue. It was a little surprising that with how good the Hawkeyes’ receivers are and how bad Purdue typically is in pass defense that Petras didn’t have more success through the air.
Petras had a couple throws he’d like to have back, like the incomplete screen pass to Tyler Goodson with less than 2 minutes left in the game that would’ve went for a huge gain. But he sailed it due to Purdue’s pass rush. The timing looked a little weird, too, as one of the linemen was in Goodson’s way. The Hawkeyes need to hone in on these fundamentals
All in all, Petras was fine, especially considering he started slow. This was something to build on, though he may not get better opportunities than against Purdue. One piece of advice that I’m sure he’s already gotten: Get the ball to Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
(Last week: 8)
11. Noah Vedral, Rutgers
Vedral didn’t have to work miracles, as his defense (7 forced turnovers) put the offense in advantageous situations. Still, Vedral made some really nice plays. He set the tone by floating a deep ball to Bo Melton to set up Rutgers’ first TD. He made a nice move on a 24-yard rushing TD after a Michigan State turnover that put Rutgers up 20-7 and really put them in control.
Expectations aren’t incredibly high for the Nebraska transfer, but there may be something special brewing at Rutgers, which suddenly looks like it could win a few games.
(Last week: 14)
12. Rocky Lombardi, Michigan State
Lombari’s final numbers — 31 of 44 for 319 yards, 3 TD and 2 INT — looked pretty good, but the redshirt junior put Michigan State in a 2-touchdown hole early on with a fumble and an interception. Turnovers were a theme for the Spartans in the opener, and while it wasn’t all Lombardi’s fault, he needs to take better care of the ball.
His first TD to Jayden Reed was actually thrown at the line of scrimmage and he took it 50 yards down the sideline. Lombardi settled in well and had some good zip on his throws.
Lombardi entered as a career 43 percent passer, so it was an encouraging sign that he displayed some accuracy. Reed really hurt several drives with a drop and 2 fumbles.
(Last week: 13)
13. Brandon Peters, Illinois
Experience was supposed to be an asset early in a pandemic-stricken season, but the 5th-year senior didn’t look comfortable. He was double-clutching some of his throws and not just letting it rip.
It’s the little things that were frustrating about his first performance. When he was trying to throw a ball away in the 1st quarter, he basically threw it right to a Wisconsin LB Nick Herbig, who should have made the easy interception. When the play clock was running down, Peters was oblivious, even as his teammates were yelling clock in an empty stadium. Lovie Smith had to burn a timeout.
His No. 1 goal was to improve his accuracy and he completed only 42.1 percent of his passes. He did run for 75 yards, his third straight game with 68 yards or more. But he’s not out there to make plays with his legs.
Isaiah Williams came in periodically, but he didn’t look any better, so Peters’ job is safe for now. But you have to wonder how long Smith will stick with him.
(Last week: 10)
14. Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland
It turns out that playing QB is not as easy as Taulia’s older brother makes it look. There wasn’t a lot to be excited about from Tagovailoa, who threw 3 INTs and averaged only 3.8 yards per attempt. Lance LeGendre looked OK in relief, completing all 4 of his passes. Tagovailoa may find himself on the bench if he doesn’t turn it around soon.
(Last week: 12)