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How Do 2021’s Big Ten Quarterbacks Stack Up Against Historically Bad Passing Seasons?

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Illinois v Rutgers Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

Update 9/28/2021: I thought that this article might be a fun one to revisit in the wake of a terrible week of Big Ten quarterbacking! How have things panned out since I first published this?

Well, 2019 didn’t produce any sub-100 passing efficiency seasons from any quarterback with a starter workload. The closest was Bowling Green’s Grant Loy, who started all 12 games for the Falcons completing 115 of 203 for 1,137 yards, 6 touchdowns and 11 picks. That’s good for a 102.6 rating and 3.8 adjusted yards per attempt. That’s still a good enough AY/A figure to get a first down in three passes though! Loy would then transfer to...Auburn?! He’s currently a redshirt senior there.

2020 of course was bizarre and featured small sample sizes, but two quarterbacks posted sub-90 seasons. Jalon Daniels of Kansas played 7 games, completing half of his attempts for 718 yards, a touchdown and 4 picks. This worked out to an 86.6 rating and 3.7 AY/A. But the worst was...Bowling Green’s Matt McDonald, who posted an 85.5 rating by virtue of one touchdown and six picks on 43.9% passing. McDonald started in Bowling Green’s win over Minnesota.

So who’s the worst in 2021 so far? Well, that depends on your metric. Only Colorado’s Brandon Lewis has a sub-90 efficiency rating (89.9), with Vanderbilt’s Ken Seals (92.7) nipping at his heels on nearly twice the passing attempts. But if you’re looking for the lowest adjusted yards per attempt, only one quarterback in FBS football is averaging less than the 3.4 yards needed to move the chains in three plays...

Why, it’s none other than Graham Mertz! Three of the bottom 11 are in the Big Ten, but what’s interesting is that seven of those bottom 17 are on teams that were ranked to start the season. Only Florida, Texas A&M and Clemson (just barely) remain ranked. Two of them are five star prospects recruited by Clemson.

Still, Mertz is passing for more than double the AY/A that Sitkowski did in 2018. Artur stands alone in this era of college football.

Original Article

After yesterday’s case study in what happens to coaches who do to struggling quarterbacks what Chris Ash did to Artur Sitkowski, I promised an update that was a little more fun. Early in that article, I said that “quarterbacks that struggle this much simply don’t get this many reps anymore.” Passing stat lines simply don’t look like that these days...but where would Sitkowski’s 2018 line have seemed normal? Once again, these lines are from sports-reference.com, and here’s Art’s.

Here’s a comparable one from the 1979 Penn Quakers, before the Ivy League was officially “FCS”:

1979 was the last gasp of the passing dark ages; in the NFL, you’d seen more versatile offenses replace the ground-and-pound-while-Bob-Griese-throws-more-picks-than-touchdowns Dolphins of the early decade, but while that was hip on the West Coast, the Northeast hadn’t gotten there. That’s why you see such a low number of attempts. Penn went 0-9, by the way.

You don’t need to leave New Jersey though. Here’s Jacque LaPrarie’s 1982 Rutgers season:

That’s actually pretty similar to Art’s, but with a better TD-Int ratio. That’s also a phenomenal name that seems more Montreal than Jersey, but whatever. Rutgers had a two-headed monster in 2002:

That’s just a phenomenal depth chart right there.

Sitkowski could very well still go #1 overall in the NFL Draft someday, however, like former Boilermaker Jeff George. Here’s his 1986.

He improved significantly upon transferring to a school with more distinctive colors that he could recognize.

The era Sitkowski’s stat line harkens back to is that 60’s thing where, as Woody Hayes put it, “there’s three things that can happen on a passing play and two of ‘em are bad.” Gary Wydman for the 1964 Nittany Lions exemplifies this:

Imagine throwing one touchdown. Now, to see the progression of the passing game AND of Penn State as a program, let’s jump ahead to starting quarterback Doug Strang’s stat line for the 1984 team, smack dab between two national titles in ‘82 and ‘86:

I can’t believe a dude who started on a team of such a high profile completed 38.5% of his passes for the whole season. Penn State wasn’t in a conference, but that was during the time that Mike White was teaching the Midwest how to throw a pass, a lesson sorely needed after masterpieces like this:

...Wait a second. I know that name.

Sure enough, that’s the very same Tim Salem that served as Tim Beckman’s special teams coordinator from 2012-2014 at Illinois. He now coaches tight ends at Pitt. 13 picks on only 170 attempts is pretty tough to pull off. A slight downgrade from Minnesota’s 1976 quarterback...

The very same! This letdown came on the heels of a 15 TD performance in 1975 after he won the starting job over Marc Trestman. Yep. That Marc Trestman.

There’s Mike Kerrigan of the 1979 Northwestern Wildcats. Art’s 2018 stat line was an indicator of the worst team in the Big Ten, but in 1979, a line like that would indicate...the worst team in the Big Ten. 1979 was part of the 34-game losing streak Northwestern put together. Here’s a Northwestern stat line from better times, a 7-4 campaign that wrapped up with a win at #16 Ohio State and a home victory over #19 Michigan State:

....wait....WHAT?

EDIT: It has since come to my attention that this stat line earned Daigneau a unanimous first-team All Big Ten selection at quarterback. Yes, it was really just this stat line, because his rushing stats consist of 45 attempts for -55 yards. This is the only season in this article posted by the first team All Big Ten quarterback. What the hell was going on in the Big Ten in 1971?!?!

The last few have been about that TD/INT ratio, but the 60’s and 70’s also produced other numbers of an eye-popping scale.

The 1975 Wolverines were helmed by signalcaller Rick Leach and his 32% completion rate. 2.0 adjusted yards per attempt! The best part about throwing 4 picks for every TD while completing less than a third of your passes? Sometimes you go to the Orange Bowl ranked #5 in the country anyway. They were beaten 14-6 by Oklahoma, whose then-rival Nebraska doesn’t play nice with this experiment because they only really started passing in the last 15 years.

Would you like to see what kind of passing acumen could propel you to a national title in 1970?

There’s Ohio State’s title-winning tandem in all their glory, each passing for fewer than 500 yards. Woody Hayes liked to keep it on the ground. It was safer that way. One day, however, a hotshot freshman named Art joined the team and won the starting job immediately. Woody threw caution to the wind and, like Chris Ash 40 years later, went all-in on Art.

Of course, things look a little different when you’re surrounded with high level talent. Ohio State went to the Gator Bowl, where Art, true to form, started chucking interceptions. His picks against Clemson included the legendary interception whose return saw Woody Hayes punch the linebacker in the throat, leading to his firing.

Art gets coaches fired.

Schlichter was one of several quarterbacks on this list to be drafted in the NFL Draft, but he didn’t last long due to gambling addiction. He benefited from the introduction of “let’s try to pass before third down” in the early 80’s, a strategy that would have helped quarterbacks like Joe Shugars of 1970 Maryland...

...Bob Naponic of 1968 Illinois...

3.8 YARDS PER ATTEMPT.

...Alex Hornibrook Charles Burt of Wisconsin...

...or the back-to-back magnificence of the Iowa Hawkeyes ‘65 and ‘66 quarterbacks, Gary Snook and Ed Podolak

The Snooker
Eddie Pods, as Hawk Harrelson calls him

That 63.9 efficiency rating is among the lowest I could find...but not THE lowest in a Big Ten season. That honor belongs to Indiana’s Ted McNulty (again, no relation to John)

WOW. -0.3 adjusted yards per attempt. That’s worse than if every pass was a spike into the ground. 1971 was a different time.

Some masterpieces exist outside the confines of the Big Ten. Out in El Paso, this was their 1975 situation:

“Boooooo!” said the UTEP fan as McKinley threw yet another pick. “Put in Smith, he clearly knows how to do this!” The next year, that fan got their wish:

That very same year, our friends in the MAC had a problem. The Northern Illinois Huskies were trying to throw the ball, but this happened:

30.9%. 3.5 actual yards per attempt. Adjusted YPA of nearly a one-yard loss. 45.4 efficiency rating. This one is truly a wonder to behold.

You might see all these stat lines with their tiny numbers of attempts and assume that everyone was afraid to throw the ball back in those days. What if I told you that in 1966, Wichita State quarterback John Eckman threw for over 2300 yards? Revolutionary, ahead of his time, right?

What if I also told you it took him 458 attempts to get there? In ten games, Eckman averaged 45.8 attempts per contest. Dwayne Haskins in 2018 only averaged 38 per game by comparison. The best analogue would be Patrick Mahomes’ 2015 season, where he averaged 44 APG. He finished with 4,653 yards, 36 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Would you like to know how many TD’s and INT’s John Eckman finished with?

Are you sure?

Very well.

This is a division 1 single-season record, by the way, and it is impossible to conceive of a scenario where that record ever falls. There’s just no way any quarterback will ever again be allowed to toss 34 picks in a season. Nobody has thrown more than 26 since 1993, and in fact there have only been eleven individual seasons with more than 20 picks since 2000.

This might not even be the most unusual Wichita State quarterback, however. Let’s look at the curious case of Tom Owen.

I’m particularly enamored with his 1971 season because some truly unthinkable numbers are in there. 32.8% completions, sure, but 1 touchdown to 19 interceptions is hard to even conceive of. That 45.1 rating is one of the lowest I can find anywhere, and accounting for interceptions, the average Tom Owen pass in 1971 was the equivalent of losing 1.6 yards. How can that be, you ask? Well, the only thing more impressive than the 1/19 TD/INT ratio is the fact that he managed 19 interceptions on only 137 attempts.

A full 14% of this guy’s passes got picked off. For comparison, remember how ridiculously easy it was for Tua Tagovailoa to throw touchdowns last year, with no pressure ever getting to him, a fearsome running game and NFL receivers three deep? He still only managed a touchdown on 12.1% of his attempts.

Look at Tom Owen’s career stats. Just about 40% completions, 13 touchdowns to 45 interceptions.

This man was drafted by the 49ers and played ten seasons in the NFL, mostly as a backup, winning a Super Bowl ring with Washington.

This is all verifiable.

Anyway, I want to talk about two more, because I found another season with the same TD/INT ratio from VMI’s Vern Beitzel in 1971:

Just think about this. You’d hope a baseball player hitting .262 has another dimension to his game, such as being an incredible fielder or hitting tons of homers. And yet! His adjusted yards per attempt were positive! This is mainly because his 19 picks came on nearly 300 attempts, not 137 like Owen’s.

That 1/19 TD/INT ratio is pretty fun...but it’s not the best I came across.

The 1976 Purdue Boilermakers, in Alex Agase’s final season at the helm, were quarterbacked by senior Mark Vitali.

You know, that 42.4 completion percentage isn’t AWFUL for 1976, and 16.2 yards per completion is perfectly competent.

But.

The 2008 Detroit Lions of TD/INT ratios.

It’s not the worst passing season in this article, but it’s certainly my personal favorite.

Anyway, here’s the quarterback depth chart for 1979 Michigan: