The mercurial quarterback battle royale
Ten rounds of equal parts frustration and enchantment
Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Michigan's Denard Robinson are two electrifying quarterbacks who have both, at times, been slowed by their inability to do the most traditional quarterback-y thing they're asked to do -- throw the ball. They've been tied at the hip in that regard, but the race is even closer than public perception makes it appear.
The pair are ranked five and six in the Big Ten in QB rating, five and six in yards per game, last and second-to-last (with a tie) in interceptions, and five and six in rushing attempts. Outside of how they secure their cleats -- Martinez uses shoelaces, Robinson magic -- they appear all but inseparable.
But there could be one key difference: Martinez appears to be getting better.
After the disastrous three interceptions at Wisconsin, Taylor Martinez said he "just needs to make better decisions." He said it three times, actually, which didn't seem to give any indication as to how that would happen nor inspire much confidence that it would.
But here's the thing, he has started making better decisions. Taylor Martinez has had a Wisconaissance.
Since that game, Martinez is 77-for-122 passing (64.2%) for 865 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. That's a passer rating of 142.18 which, if it was his season total, would place him third in the Big Ten ahead of Michigan State's Kirk Cousins. That's not factoring in drops, which have become a growing problem of late.
WR Kenny Bell said there were "at least four" in the Penn State game. The Minnesota game had at least three that I can remember in the third quarter alone. No matter, the trend is clear. Martinez, as a passer, is playing as good as he's ever played.
"He's throwing in windows, making good reads," Bell said Monday of Martinez' improvement. His running numbers have taken a hit. He hasn't rushed for more than 60 yards since the Ohio State game and his yards per carry has dropped to 3.85 from 6.68 YPC in September. Nebraska fans will take that trade. Martinez is learning how to throw. He won't forget how to run. The threat of his speed is enough on its own.
Just ask Bo Pelini.
Pelini said Monday he'd need "an hour" to list all the ways Denard Robinson can beat a defense. "If somebody says a mobile QB doesn’t put more stress on a defense they probably don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “It’s another dimension (for the defense). That’s why people are doing it."
And perhaps no quarterback "does it" better than Denard Robinson. Like Martinez, he exists as a passable passer due to the stress he can put on a defense with his feet. But here's the interesting things with Robinson - the rush factor has become less of a danger later in the season.
In his three year career, Robinson has averaged 118.33 yards per game and 7.93 yards per carry on 14.91 carries per game in August/September. In October/November, those number drop to 67.5 yards per game and 5.05 yards per carry on 13.36 carries per game. If you prefer to look at it this way, Robinson averages 116 yards per game and 8.15 yards per carry in non-conference play and 66.14 yards per game and 4.87 yards per carry in conference.
Robinson has been slightly better as a passer of late. In two of the past three (Purdue and Illinois) he's completed better than 60 percent of his passes but thrown zero touchdowns against two interceptions.
Relying on either quarterbacks' arm is still a tricky proposition for either fanbase which makes the key to this game rather easy to identify. Whichever quarterback does what he doesn't do best better likely wins.
At this point, I might give that edge to Taylor Martinez.