I’m not sure if you, dear reader, had heard, but Rutgers Scarlet Knights quarterback Artur Sitkowski did not have a very good 2018 season.
In fact, it was such a bad season it’s hard to blame Sitkowski. These stats don’t just happen in a vacuum; a lot of circumstances had to align, such as a first-year offensive coordinator, an inexperienced quarterback, injuries at the tackle positions, inadequate recruiting over the years leading to a void of talent, and other factors. The one ingredient that really made this possible, however, was the stubborn insistence of the Rutgers coaching staff on riding with Sitkowski (again, a true freshman) as much as they possibly could. That’s why this is unprecedented in recent history; quarterbacks that struggle this much simply don’t get this many reps anymore.
We did some case studies to see what fate might befall Rutgers as a result of this tactic, and our conclusion was that while Rutgers will most likely fire Chris Ash after the 2019 season, they might keep him and get kicked out of the Big Ten.
In searching the phenomenal Sports-Reference database, we set up search parameters to include seasons since 2000 (with complete data) where a quarterback had at least 168 pass attempts (indicating a primary-starter workload of 14 attempts per game for 12 games) and had an efficiency rating under 80:
You’ll notice that all four were freshmen during these poor seasons, which makes sense given how rare it is for a true freshman passer to succeed in FBS football. These were also all losing seasons, with Stanford’s 4-7 being the best mark among any of these four teams.
While Wallis washed out after SMU went 0-12 his sophomore year, Edwards and Evans would eventually have some success. As a junior, Edwards completed 62.7% of his passes and threw 17 TD’s to 7 interceptions in Stanford’s first year under Walt Harris and was eventually taken by the Buffalo Bills in the third round of the NFL Draft. Evans, meanwhile, led the American Athletic Conference in passing yards and touchdowns as a junior in 2015 and repeated as the league touchdown champion in 2016, leading the Golden Hurricane to a 10-3 mark. Evans has been with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats since 2017.
Even in what were clearly trial-by-fire seasons for true freshman quarterbacks, however, none of the other three quarterbacks played more than eight games. In fact, none of the other three led their teams in yardage and only Wallis led his team in attempts. Sitkowski, on the other hand, not only started eleven games but led Rutgers in attempts by over 199, having 3.7 times as many as Gio Rescigno. In other words, while a handful of other teams have made playing time for their freshman quarterback a priority even as he works through struggles, none have taken it to the extreme that Rutgers did last year.
If I were Chris Ash and John McNulty, however, I wouldn’t point to the cases of Edwards and Evans as evidence that they made the right call to play Sitkowski so much. Both quarterbacks had their breakout seasons only after the coach from their freshman campaign had been fired and replaced.
Like Ash in 2018, Tulsa head coach Bill Blankenship was in his 3rd year at the helm when he guided Evans to a historically poor 2013 season. Unlike Ash, he was coming off an 11-win conference championship season. When he posted 5 wins in the following 2 years, though, Tulsa had had enough and brought in Philip Montgomery, who made a 4,000 yard passer out of Evans.
Buddy Teevens had inherited a winning Stanford program from Ty Willingham in 2002 and immediately gone 2-9. Like Ash, he brought in a new offensive coordinator after one season. However, that OC was none other than BILL CUBIT. It was Cubit that produced the masterpiece that was Edwards’ 2003 campaign, and by the end of 2004 he was gone. Head coach Walt Harris oversaw Edwards’ development into an NFL quarterback before being fired himself after going 1-11 in his second season, opening the door for head coach Jim Harbaugh to take over.
Anyway, considering that Wallis only played one more season of football despite having eligibility left, this means that two years after each of those other three seasons, either the head coach or the quarterback was gone. This portends poorly for the prospect of Ash/Sitkowski 2020.
In fact, let’s explore the relationship between high-usage poor-performance quarterback seasons and the subsequent tenure of the head coach. Let’s revisit that list and expand the maximum passer rating to 90.
Only 22 cases of a QB throwing 168 or more passes while rating under 90 can be found since 2000. Let’s examine them:
- Andrew McNulty (no relation) started the first five games of UNT head coach Dan McCarney’s fifth season. The fifth was a 66-7 beatdown by FCS Portland State, after which McCarney was fired. QB: graduated. Coach: fired midseason
- Greg Cicero was the clear-cut starter for the Baylor Bears in their third season under noted idiot Kevin Steele. They went 0-8 in the conference, but Steele would somehow last one more season before being fired with a 9-36 record (1-31 conference). QB: graduated. Coach: 1 season.
- Guess I’ll cover Hansell Bearden and Aaron Leak at once. Each was the #1 starter for Troy’s Larry Blakeney, who was in seasons 12 and 13 at the helm. Blakeney employed a very run-heavy offense more akin to the Bo Schembechler school than anything. 2002 and 2003 were also the first seasons Troy played at the FBS level as an independent before joining the Sun Belt in 2004. Blakeney would go on to lead Troy to five straight Sun Belt titles, but none involved these two quarterbacks. Bearden saw limited action in 2003 and left after the season, while Leak was benched for D.T. McDowell, who led Troy to four straight wins. QB: 1 season. Coach: 11/12 more seasons, but this is an outlier.
- Jack Milas was a career backup until first-year coach Mike Neu had to ride him for most of the season after losing star QB Riley Neal early in the season. He graduated and Neu improved to 4-8 last year. This isn’t really the same situation.
- Larry Smith was the starter for Bobby Johnson’s 2-10 Vanderbilt campaign that saw him fired after 8 seasons. The next year, he again was the starter and again went 2-10. This time, coach Robbie Caldwell resigned before he could be fired. Vanderbilt hired some scrub named James Franklin, who went with the much more talented Jordan Rodgers in 2011. QB: graduated. Coach: 0 seasons
- Austen Everson’s 2005 season was the first for Frank Solich at Ohio. Everson was the starter for both 2005 and 2006, improving slightly in ‘06, but remember that this was playing QB for Frank Solich. This meant Everson had 105 rushing attempts in addition to his 220 passing attempts. In any case, Solich is still going strong 12 years later. QB: Graduated. Coach: 13+ seasons
- The unfortunately named Daniel Meager was worked at a grueling pace by 8th year coach Darrell Dickey, starting 2005 and 2006 until Dickey’s firing also meant he was benched by new coach Todd Dodge. QB: graduated. Coach: 1 season
- Wayne Younger took most of the snaps for Mario Cristobal’s 1-11 campaign in his first year at FIU. This was a 1-win improvement on the 0-12 season from 2006. Cristobal would go on to have winning seasons at FIU, but Younger never again started. QB: graduated without ever starting again. Coach: 5 seasons
- Joshua Cribbs was the Antwaan Randle-El of the MAC, languishing away as a game-breaking athlete playing quarterback for a bad team. Cribbs struggled as a sophomore passer, but broke 1,000 yards rushing on only 137 attempts. Asking who his coach was gives you the same answer as if you asked “does Dean pee?” Yes, in fact, Dean Pees. Specifically, Dean Pees away elite athletic talent to go 17-51 and be fired after 2003. QB: four-year starter. Coach: 1 season.
- Lon shot the Sherriff, but he did not shoot the deputy. This was a lucky break for the San Diego State Aztecs, as deputy quarterback Adam Hall would prove much more effective as a starter in 2002 under new head coach Tom Craft. QB: permabench. Coach: 0 seasons
- Hahahahaha Ryan Cubit. Greg Schiano went 1-11 in year 1 after inheriting the future Kalamazoo medical supply salesman. Unlike Ash, Schiano spread the reps around in 2002, as Cubit, Ted Trump and Ryan Hart battled it out. Cubit transferred to Western Michigan after 2002, seeing the writing on the wall. QB: transferred a year later. Coach: 10 seasons.
- Ronnie Fouch was pressed into action after Jake Locker broke his thumb in game 4 of one of the worst FBS seasons of all time. Fouch was Ty Willingham’s primary option as the Washington Huskies went 0-12, leading to his firing. After 2008, Fouch threw one incomplete pass before leaving football. QB: 1 year as depth. Coach: 0 seasons
- Career backup Tyler van Tubbergen was pressed into action as a junior in 2012 when Alex Carder went down, but the Bill Cubit era ended there anyway. TVT was the starter for PJ Fleck’s 2013 dumpster fire Western Michigan Broncos until October, when he handed the reins to freshman Zach Terrell. QB: benched. Coach: ROW ROW ROW YOUR BOAT
- Alas, poor Lee McNeill, starter of Charlotte’s inaugural FBS season. He would throw six more passes after this. QB: permabench. Coach: hung on for 3 more seasons.
- 2009 was Jeff Fleming’s only year in college football, taking a majority of snaps for DeWayne Walker’s 1-11 NMSU Aggies. Walker would go 10-40 before being canned in 2012. QB: done at the end of the year. Coach: 3 seasons.
- Mike McGann struggled in his freshman campaign and improved very slowly under 4th-year coach Bobby Wallace, but was eventually benched as a senior anyway. Despite enormous amounts of losing, Temple didn’t fire Wallace until they went 0-11 after getting kicked out of the Big East in 2005. QB: two more bad seasons and a bench ride. Coach: 4 more seasons, but got kicked out of the Big East.
- Casey Paus filled the void left by the graduating Cody Pickett in Keith Gilbertson’s second season at the helm of the Washington Huskies. Gilbertson would be fired after going 1-11; Paus would throw three more passes for new coach...........Ty Willingham. QB: permabench. Coach: 0 seasons, and then they brought in Ty Willingham.
So we have 21 seasons besides Sitkowski’s. 7 of these seasons involved a first-year head coach, while 2 were from second-year head coaches, both of whom were summarily fired. 12 had coaches who, like Ash in 2018, were in at least their third year on the job. Two of those were a program’s first year at the FBS level. If you extend Blakeney’s grace period one more year, that’s 9 head coaches who, in at least their third season coaching an established FBS program, gave season starter minutes to a heavily struggling quarterback since 2000. Of those nine, only Bobby Wallace lasted longer than one more season, which means no coaches lasted longer than one more season without their team eventually being kicked out of the Big East.
If you can believe it, this inspired another dive down a rabbit hole, but that’s a separate article.