Ranking the best seasons for first-year QBs in the B1G this decade
Stepping in at quarterback isn’t the easiest thing to do in the B1G. Yet, somehow, it’s become a yearly routine for some newcomer under center to break the mold and evolve into one of the top players in the conference.
Every year since 2010 – and probably even before then – there’s been a first-year quarterback who has emerged as a top passer in the league. Most years, there’s more than one gunslinger who turns heads. It’s become such a frequent occurrence that it became necessary to create a top five list.
OK, maybe it wasn’t necessary, but it was certainly fun.
There several names that could be argued onto this list. And honestly, there are a few really good quarterbacks with excellent first-year numbers who were tough to keep out of the top five (sorry, C.J. Beathard and Nate Sudfeld).
Here are the five quarterbacks from the B1G that have had the best seasons as first-year starters since 2010:
5. James Vandenberg, Iowa (2011)
How good was Vandenberg as a first-year starter? He’s the last Iowa quarterback to hit the 3,000-yard mark in a season. His junior campaign (2011) ended with 3,022 yards, 25 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. That’s not a bad stat line for a quarterback running Kirk Ferentz’s offense.
Vandenberg was tested early the year, battling Pitt just three games in. Trailing 27-10 in the fourth quarter, Vandenberg tossed three touchdown passes in the final 15 minutes to rally the Hawkeyes to a 31-27 victory in what was arguably the most impressive performance of his career.
He finished the contest with 399 yards and three touchdown strikes with just one interception.
When the 2011 season concluded, Vandenberg ranked third in the B1G in yards per game (232.5) and tied Kirk Cousins for second in touchdowns with 25. Iowa was just 7-6 that season, but Vandenberg was the primary reason the Hawkeyes were bowl eligible.
4. Dan Persa, Northwestern (2010)
It may not be the sexiest name to make the list, but the former Northwestern gunslinger is more than worthy.
Because of an Achilles tendon injury suffered late in the year, Persa was unable to finish out his first year under center. But the 10 games he started were spectacular.
Persa was a great dual-threat quarterback in Evanston, throwing for 2,581 yards and adding 519 yards with his legs. He totaled 24 touchdowns (15 passing, 9 rushing) and tossed just four interceptions in 2010.
He’s also the most accurate passer in B1G history. His 73.5 percent completion rate in 2010 is remains atop the conference’s all-time leaderboard and ranks fifth nationally. It’s only fitting that a Northwestern quarterback be one of the smartest decision-makers ever.
Persa suffered the injury in a 21-17 win over Iowa. The Wildcats were 7-3 with him under center. With Persa sidelined, Northwestern dropped its final three contests.
3. Connor Cook, Michigan State (2013)
Despite low passing numbers in his first two games because of a quarterback battle with Andrew Maxwell, Cook was still knocking on the door of the 3,000-yard mark as a first-year starter. In 2013, Cook finished his inaugural season under center with 2,755 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. Oh, and he led Michigan State to a 13-1 record, a B1G title and a Rose Bowl victory.
Not too shabby.
Cook threw for more than 200 yards in eight games as a sophomore and was a fairly consistent passer throughout most the year. But in the two biggest games of the 2013 campaign is when the Spartans’ quarterback really proved himself.
In the B1G Championship against Ohio State, Cook completed 24-of-40 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns, leading Michigan State to a 34-24 win and a conference crown. A month later in the Rose Bowl, he threw for 332 yards and added two touchdown strikes in a 24-20 win over Stanford.
2. Trace McSorley, Penn State (2016)
Look no further than the second half of the B1G Championship Game. McSorley made one of the nation’s top defenses look like a junior varsity squad with his 384-yard, four-touchdown performance that handed Penn State its first conference title since 2008.
Stepping in after Christian Hackenberg left, there weren’t overly high expectations for McSorley and the Nittany Lions offense. But the sophomore surprised everyone, throwing for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. He also added 365 rushing yards and reached the end zone seven times on the ground.
In his first year as a starter, McSorley became the B1G’s most electric player.
The 3,614 yards in a season rank ninth all-time in the B1G and is the highest single-year total for any quarterback in Penn State history. And that’s a significant accomplishment.
Along with leading the conference in passing yardage, McSorley also threw more touchdown passes than any other B1G quarterback in 2016.
1. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State (2014)
Replacing a two-time B1G Offensive Player of the Year isn’t a scenario most players are hoping to walk into. But that’s what happened to Barrett, a freshman quarterback, when Braxton Miller was ruled out for the 2014 season due to a preseason injury.
It took a few weeks for Barrett to settle in, but when he did, he was impossible to stop.
Barrett eviscerated most defenses in his first season under center, ranking second in the conference in passing yards per game (236.2) and eighth in rushing (78.2 yards per game). He accounted for 45 total touchdowns, breaking Drew Brees’ record of 42 that lasted well over a decade.
Though Barrett had plenty of bright moments as a freshman, none were more impressive – or important – than his performance against Michigan State in East Lansing.
Barrett threw for 300 yards, rushed for 86 yards and had five total touchdowns as the Buckeyes knocked off the defending B1G champs 49-37. That win helped gave Ohio State a leg up in the B1G East and was a defining moment for the eventual conference and national champions.
Unfortunately, Barrett suffered a leg injury in Ohio State’s final game of the season against Michigan, keeping him sidelined for the three postseason games.
We can only imagine what those numbers might’ve looked like if he had played in those last three contests of the Buckeyes’ title quest.