As openers approach, Big Ten QB battles still undecided

As openers approach, Big Ten QB battles still undecided
August 27, 2013, 2:30 pm
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Vinnie Duber

"When the game starts, everybody will know who the starting quarterback is when it's our first offensive series."

That's kind of late to announce your starting signal-caller, but that's the route that Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien is taking.

The Nittany Lions open their season Saturday against Syracuse, and, according to O'Brien, the QB battle between freshman Christian Hackenberg and sophomore Tyler Ferguson will last at least up to the moment a quarterback needs to go under center. Heck, it could last longer.

"It's been an excellent competition, and it will continue to be a competition," O'Brien said Tuesday during the weekly Big Ten coaches conference call. "It's two really good quarterbacks, and it's made our team better."

[MORE: For Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, each team has an edge in season-opener]

So what exactly has made this decision-making process so lengthy? Regardless of who it is, Penn State is going to go with a guy who has never seen any game action in a college football game, someone who will have big shoes to fill in replacing the departed Matt McGloin. O'Brien said both Hackenberg and Ferguson have their strengths, but it's the strengths they share which might have made the choice so hard for O'Brien and his staff.

"They're two pretty comparable guys when it comes to that position," O'Brien said. "Both guys are smart, so whether it's in a meeting room or out on the field, they're able to digest and execute what we're trying to do. Now they've had their share of mistakes, but it's been pretty enlightening to me to watch two guys go out there and be taught in the meetings. I love the meetings. They go out there, and they're able to execute the play pretty well. That's pretty good for young quarterbacks in this system.

"At the end of the day I'll probably try to settle on one, but I can tell you that in this game, being the first game where neither guy has played for us at all as a Penn State football player, I would say that both guys need to be ready to play."

[RELATED: Beckman, Illini gearing up for season-opener]

And the Lions aren't the only team in the conference still searching for some consistency at QB. Wisconsin has also decided to wait until the last possible minute to announce their starter, with new head coach Gary Andersen saying Tuesday that there wouldn't be such a big deal made of that decision if it was any position besides quarterback. Nonetheless, the Badgers host UMass on Saturday morning. So it'll have to be either sophomore Joel Stave or senior Curt Phillips by the time 11 a.m. rolls around.

The choice has perhaps been the most difficult at Indiana, where head coach Kevin Wilson has yet to choose between three quarterbacks: junior Cameron Coffman, sophomore Tre Roberson or sophomore Nate Sudfeld.

"It's been a really good camp for all of them," Wilson said Tuesday. "But in fairness to our three guys, no one has really eliminated or separated. So it's going to be a challenge for us as coaches for practice reps, creating the opportunities in fairness to the kids. ... We haven't made a final decision who's jogging out first. But I promise this, we're not going to be looking over our shoulder.

"If it's a high-scoring game both ways, we'll probably stay with whoever started, probably play the whole game. If we ... think we need a shot in the arm, we'll go to a second guy."

The Hoosiers host Indiana State in their opener Saturday.

[MORE: Big Ten football preview: Ohio State Buckeyes]

One place where a starting quarterback has been named is Illinois, where senior Nathan Scheelhaase is the go-to guy heading into Saturday's opener against Southern Illinois. But injuries and other factors led to Scheelhaase splitting time fairly often last season with Reilly O'Toole, who returns this year as a junior. But the real challenge could come from heralded freshman Aaron Bailey. He's listed third on the depth chart, but coach Tim Beckman didn't rule out his making an appearance this weekend in perhaps one of the few games this season where the Illini would be able to rest their starters.

"The word that I use to describe Aaron Bailey is maturity," Beckman said of the Bolingbrook product. "He's a winner. He understands the football intelligence portion of the game. I think he's got an even stronger arm than we even expected because I don't think that they had to throw the ball too much at Bolingbrook. We just have to give him a little bit more work on the touch of the throws. He's very, very athletic. He's been a pleasant surprise in the 25 practices we've had, and we're excited about the way he's progressing and definitely feel that he can be a big factor in this program."