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Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Big Ten QBs on the move more than ever

By Adam Rittenberg

In 2001, the Big Ten presented its MVP award to a quarterback whose unique skill set made him somewhat of an athletic wonder at the time.

He had become the first player in FBS (then Division I-A) history to record 40 passing touchdowns and 40 rushing touchdowns in his career. He had recorded the top three single-season rushing performances by a quarterback in Big Ten history. He had recorded three of the top four single-game quarterback rushing performances in league history.

He had set the Big Ten career quarterback rushing record with 3,895 yards, eclipsing the previous mark, set by Michigan's Rich Leach, by 1,719 yards.

The Big Ten hadn't seen anyone quite like Indiana's Antwaan Randle El.

But if Randle El played today, he'd have plenty of company.

A year after Michigan's Denard Robinson set several NCAA records, including single-season rushing yards by a quarterback (1,702), the Big Ten is a league filled with quarterbacks who can scoot.

Three weeks into the 2011 season, here's how the Big Ten's rushing chart looks.

1. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: 384 yards (128 ypg)
2. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan: 352 yards (117.3 ypg)*
3. MarQueis Gray, QB, Minnesota: 328 yards (109.3 ypg)
4. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: 272 yards (90.7 ypg)
*-includes stats from opener against Western Michigan

The league's top three rushers are quarterbacks, and all of them rank among the nation's top 25 rushers. In fact, the nation's top three quarterback rushers all come from the Big Ten.

While the season remains very young and the rushing chart likely will change in the coming weeks, the Big Ten has become a haven for dual-threat quarterbacks.

Six of the league's top single-game quarterback rushing performances have taken place in the past four seasons (four by Robinson, one by former Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka and one by former Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis). Robinson set the Big Ten single-season quarterback rushing record in 2010, and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase finished fifth -- behind Randle El's three seasons -- with 868 yards.

Gray set a Minnesota single-game quarterback rushing record last Saturday by racking up 171 yards in a win against Miami (Ohio). The junior is the first Gophers quarterback to record consecutive 100-yard rushing performances since Billy Cockerham in 1999.

"We're seeing it week in and week out," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "This is our fourth straight week of playing quarterbacks that have a lot of designed runs. That just seems to be the direction college football is going in right now."

Although the Big Ten has never seen rushing numbers quite like these from its quarterbacks, the league has gone through similar waves.

"Back when I played, it was more option-based," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who played safety at Ohio State from 1987-90. "Now it's a little bit more the spread, zone-read, zone-option type thing. Everybody's a little bit different, but either way, that quarterback can put some pressure on you pretty quick."

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill made it clear he hopes the Big Ten rushing chart looks dramatically different in a few weeks.

His worry is valid. The more quarterbacks carry the football, the more hits they absorb and the greater their injury risk will be.

Martinez wasn't the same player -- nor Nebraska the same team -- after getting banged up midway through last season. Robinson missed time in most of Michigan's games last season after being shaken up.

"You'd rather have your tailback [leading the league in rushing]," Kill said. "... We all worry when a quarterback's running that much [about] the health of that quarterback when it comes to Game 9, 10, 11 and 12. It's a concern."