Why these 4 B1G teams are best equipped to handle a QB injury
Quarterback injuries can derail an entire season. Just ask Indiana.
Last year, the Hoosiers opened in the preseason Top 25 for the first time since 1968. It did not last long.
Starting quarterback Michael Penix Jr. never quite got right from his season-ending knee injury in 2020. But an ineffective Penix was better than no Penix at all. He was lost for the year in Week 5.
Next up was Jack Tuttle, who was injured on the final play of an opening touchdown drive against Ohio State 3 games later. Untested Donaven McCulley was thrown to the wolves. By the end of the season, he gave way to 4th-stringer Grant Gremel.
Indiana went 0-7 without Penix, severely harshing the vibe of the Hoosiers’ highest point since the ’60s.
But with a deep enough quarterback room, a team can avoid this outcome. Just ask Ohio State.
The 2014 Buckeyes could have been sunk when they went into the College Football Playoff with their 3rd-string quarterback. Instead, Cardale Jones beat Alabama and Oregon to lead Ohio State to its most recent national championship.
This is a look at the Big Ten teams in 2022 who, like those Buckeyes, are best equipped to handle adversity at the most important offensive position.
The Wolverines are the only Big Ten team with a legitimate quarterback competition as a result of both players being good, and therefore sit atop this list. (Northwestern also has a QB competition, but for the opposite reason.)
Cade McNamara played well enough in 2021 for the Wolverines to reach the College Football Playoff for the first time. He was not the reason they got that far, mind you. The defense and running game propelled Michigan. But McNamara does deserve more credit than most might be willing to concede.
For example, there were plenty of times in the early 2010s when LSU had the defense and running game to win a national title. But the Tigers never had a quarterback on those teams who could perform at a McNamara-like level.
The Wolverines might have a quarterback who can perform well beyond a McNamara-like level. That’s the expectation among the fan base, anyway, when it comes to JJ McCarthy. Jim Harbaugh inserted McCarthy in run-heavy packages as a freshman last season, but he’ll have a chance to win the starting job this season.
Regardless of who wins this quarterback competition, Michigan is poised to have the best backup quarterback situation in the B1G. The best-case scenario is McCarthy winning the starting job with McNamara providing a veteran presence off the bench. Provided, of course, he can be convinced that’s a better option than a midseason jump into the transfer portal.
CJ Stroud is the Big Ten’s top quarterback by a sizeable margin, so it is in no way ideal for the Buckeyes to need replacing him. But they’ve done it before, and based on Ryan Day’s success coaching the position, there’s little reason to think the Bucks can’t go back to the backup well. This is the program where Joe Freakin’ Burrow didn’t make the starting lineup.
Kyle McCord is the next in line for Ohio State’s current incarnation. He flashed what he can do when Stroud missed a game against Akron last season, completing 13-of-18 passes for 319 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Yes, it was Akron. And it’s a lot easier to do those things against the Zips than anyone in the Big Ten. But McCord was more ready to go than 5-star recruit Quinn Ewers, who is expected to start this season at Texas. He might be pretty darn good.
It’s an unlikely scenario, but Ohio State’s quarterback situation could be similar to Oklahoma’s last year. If the Heisman hopeful struggles, as Spencer Rattler did for the Sooners, the backup might push him and take the gig.
Again, that’s not a prediction. Just a belief that McCord might be harboring Caleb Williams-like talent.
If Texas transfer Casey Thompson gets hurt this year, Scott Frost may very well be stuck updating his résumé.
But then again, winning with his backup quarterback could be exactly what the doctor ordered for Frost to prove his worth as Nebraska’s head coach. And he has a couple options available should that unfortunate circumstance befall him.
Logan Smothers looked like he could be a pretty decent quarterback when an injury to Adrian Martinez forced him to start Nebraska’s season finale against Iowa. Smothers rushed for 64 yards and 2 touchdowns on 24 carries and completed 16 of 22 passes for 198 yards and an interception.
If Frost wasn’t entering a must-win season, there would be a strong argument to have the patience to develop Smothers. But since that’s not the case, the Huskers grabbed Thompson out of the portal.
If need be, Frost can also turn to Florida State transfer Chuba Purdy. Purdy saw limited time in 2 seasons with the Seminoles and is likely to compete with Smothers for the starting job in 2023. But either way, Nebraska has a couple guys who should be comfortable making spot starts.
Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito was sharp in the Illinois spring game and looks like the best quarterback option for the Fighting Illini since Nate Scheelhaase graduated in 2013. But DeVito also comes to Champaign with an injury history that cut his Syracuse career short in the first place. So Bret Bielema will probably need backup at some point.
Art Sitkowski is no threat to finish all-Big Ten, but he’s adequate enough to take the reins for a spell. Sitkowski was 12-of-15 for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns in Illinois’ season-opening win over Nebraska last season. As long as you don’t ask him to do too much, he can handle it.
And Bielema rarely asks his quarterbacks to do too much. If DeVito is hurt, Illinois will rely on establishing the run and pass only in case of emergency. Which might still be the plan even if DeVito never gets hurt.
Illinois completed only 51.2% of its passes last year, which feels like a figure out of the 1960s. Despite that dire figure and a fairly bare cupboard of talent, Bielema still had the Illini only 1 win short of a bowl game. If he doesn’t have his starter, he’ll figure out a way to game plan around the problem.