- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Astronomers have made some fascinating discoveries recently while studying dying stars. In the Big Ten, we've merely been captive observers as some of the league's biggest stars have seen their brightness dim this season.
It has been a trying, and in some cases troubling, first half of the season for several players we thought would make the biggest impact in the conference. In fact, I seem to recall someone writing in the preseason that a trio of quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- would be the marquee names in the league. (Who was that dummy, anyway?)
If the season ended today, none of the three would get my vote for even first-team All-Big Ten honors. And I'd have to think hard about including Miller on the second team. None of them, in fact, rank in the top four in the Big Ten in passing yards or the top six in passer efficiency rating.
The reasons for this are varied and well-known, but let's review anyway:
• Martinez did not look like himself in the UCLA loss in Week 3 as he appeared hesitant to run. We later found out why: he'd been battling a case of turf toe. The Huskers senior hasn't played since that loss to the Bruins, giving way to freshman Tommy Armstrong. Martinez is "doing better," according to coach Bo Pelini, but whether he'll play next week against Minnesota remains a question mark.
"He can run straight ahead," Pelini said Tuesday. "It's when he feels he can push off."
Remember, this is a guy who'd made 42 career starts before the turf toe hit. It's got to be killing him to be missing so many games in the middle of his senior season.
"He is frustrated like anybody would be," Pelini said. "He's a competitor who wants to be out there, but he's also smart and knows his body. He knows what he can do and what he can't do at this point. He's spending a lot of time in the training room, and hopefully he will turn a corner here soon."
• Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner had far less experience than the other two members of the trio, but he showed off some exciting skills at the end of last season. And when accounted for five touchdowns in a primetime win over Notre Dame in Week 2, he even started getting some Heisman buzz.
Since then, though, it has been a rough go of things for New No. 98. His 10 interceptions -- including two more in a loss at Penn State last week -- are tied for third-worst among all FBS quarterbacks. His best attribute appears to be his running ability, but the Wolverines are hesitant to run him too much for fear of injury. Still, his coach is backing Gardner.
"If I had no confidence in our quarterback, with the interceptions that we’ve had, he wouldn’t be our quarterback," Brady Hoke said Monday. "I have all the confidence in the world in Devin Gardner."
• Finally, there's Miller. He has faced less adversity than the other two, but it's still been a bumpy road for the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year.
Miller was hurt early in the San Diego State game in Week 2. In his absence, backup Kenny Guiton played like a Heisman Trophy candidate for three games, creating an actual debate on whether Guiton should keep the job when Miller's knee healed. Miller quieted that talk with a big performance against Wisconsin, but a week later at Northwestern, Urban Meyer admitted he almost pulled Miller for Guiton after some first-half struggles. The sample size is small, but Miller has not thrown for more than 203 yards in a game this season or run for more than 83 yards in one.
Fans at all three schools have at some point questioned whether their star quarterback should be benched. That's something we certainly didn't see coming in the summer.
And the quarterbacks are not alone. Northwestern running back Venric Mark was an All-America punt returner last year who also ran for 1,366 yards. But a leg injury kept him out of almost all of the Wildcats' first four games. He returned against Ohio State and ran for 60 yards on 17 carries, but he hurt his ankle last week at Wisconsin and had to sit out most of the game.
So Mark, who seemed poised for a big senior year, has played in one full game this year and has a total of 97 rushing yards. His status for this week's game vs. Minnesota is uncertain.
"I don't want to speak for him on how hard it's been," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "From my perspective and the conversations he and I have had, it's been very difficult. But from the standpoint of what he's brought to the team, he's been phenomenal. His attitude has been outstanding. He wants to play so bad, and it's got to be eating at him. But it hasn't shown in his attitude."
The good news for all four players is that there is still half a season left. If they can get healthy and in some cases iron out some issues, they have plenty of time to remind us of their brilliance, especially since their teams all remain in contention. And maybe we'll just remember the first half of 2013 as an interesting way of looking at the stars.
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