COLUMBUS, Ohio – Indiana coach Kevin Wilson knows stats can be misleading.
So when he's told that his is the only Big Ten team that ranks inside the top 50 in the nation in passing — and that three conference teams rank in the bottom 25 — he isn't ready to declare Air Wilson has turned the Hoosiers into contenders.
"Right now it's just our style, what we want to do," he said of his team, which stands 12th in the nation in passing through its first three games while playing three different quarterbacks. "The other teams? I haven't watched those other teams, but it's not passing offense (that matters) — it's total offense and it's points scored."
Funny, but this was supposed to be the year the Big Ten went airborne.
Seven of the top 10 quarterbacks in passing yardage from 2011 were back, as were nine of the 12 primary starters under center.
Yet the latest NCAA statistics look like a flashback to when Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes were fighting it out between the tackles with stout running games. The next Big Ten team in the passing stats is Michigan State at 50th. In the Bowl Subdivision, which has 120 teams, the Big Ten is competing for spots in the basement — Illinois is 98th, Iowa 100th, Wisconsin 114th.
Blame it on injuries, on graduation losses, on hybrid signal-callers or parity. But even the coaches who have thrown the ball well so far seem to be almost embarrassed by it.
Minnesota is an admirable seventh in the country in passing efficiency, a contrived bit of math which offers a glimpse of how well a team moves the ball through the air without making mistakes.
"It's early yet, so you get into too many stats early you're not sure on anything right now," coach Jerry Kill said.
The two biggest reasons the Big Ten has been more grounded than a road grader is injuries to veteran quarterbacks and a bunch of versatile athletes at the position.
Indiana's Tre Roberson (broken leg) and Purdue's Robert Marve (ACL) could miss the rest of the season, while Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase (sprained ankle) and Minnesota's MarQueis Gray (high ankle sprain) are currently hobbled.
The Illini plugged Reilly O'Toole in for Scheelhaase, who had started every game the last two seasons, and have done well. O'Toole, a sophomore, stands eighth in the nation in passing efficiency despite fronting an attack that was without its starting quarterback, center, tailback and a top wide receiver last week.
"It's been limited on offense just due to the fact that we've had some players dinged up and we have to get them back healthy so we can move forward," first-year coach Tim Beckman said.
Perhaps the biggest factor in the decline of passing so far in the conference has been the popularity of hybrids — sort of like sprinters who can throw the ball — at quarterback.
The Big Ten, once the dominion of snarling linebackers and huge blockers, has become dominated by track stars in pads.
Michigan's Denard Robinson has scampered all over the field for more than three seasons while turning around the Wolverines' fortunes. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez burst onto the public consciousness by rushing for more than 100 yards in his first three collegiate games two years ago. And new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has hitched his uptempo offense to Braxton Miller, whom he has called the most dynamic college player he has ever seen.
"He delivers punishment, he goes hard, he's a hell of a football player," Meyer said after Miller rushed for 141 yards and passed for 155, running for three scores and passing for another in a Week Two win over Central Florida. "He's better than even everybody in this country thinks right now."
Nebraska's Bo Pelini said it's great to have a quarterback who can throw, but It's even better to have one who can also avoid getting hit.
"You've got to make sure in this day and age that you have versatility on the offensive side of the football and that you have an offense that you're not trying to pound a square peg into a round hole," he said.
The conference doesn't officially open its 117th season until a week from Saturday. Many have already questioned the Big Ten, which doesn't have a team ranked among the top 15 in the Associated Press rankings.
The only two teams still unbeaten who are eligible for the postseason are Minnesota and Northwestern.
Sure, the passing hasn't been there so far. Maybe it won't ever arrive. But the season is still young and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz counsels everyone to just enjoy the ride.
"Everybody wants to know how things are going to turn out, who's going to win the Heisman, who's going to be the NFL MVP, all that stuff," he said. "But the fun of it is playing the season and seeing how things do unravel."
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