Martinez, Miller, Ball named Silver Football finalists

Chicago Tribune reporter

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Big Ten’s total offense rankings reveal a total picture of the conference’s two best quarterbacks.

Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez is first at 276.3 yards per game. Ohio State’s Braxton Miller comes next at 275.8.

That’s a difference of 18 inches per game. Pretty close, even if this were a 100-meter sprint.

So it’s fitting Martinez and Miller are two of the finalists for the 2012 Chicago Tribune Silver Football, awarded to the Big Ten’s best player and voted on by the conference’s 12 coaches. Six players received votes, including two on defense. The winner will be announced next week.

The third finalist is Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who’s vying to become the first back-to-back winner since Indiana’s Anthony Thompson in 1988-89. All he did Saturday at Penn State was score his 79th touchdown, breaking the NCAA record.

“His numbers really aren’t that far off from a year ago, except pure touchdowns,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “The yardage, the production, the effect he has had on our team … he has carried us at times.”

With two games to play -- including Saturday’s Big Ten championship against Nebraska at Lucas Oil Stadium -- Ball has rushed for 1,528 yards (127.3 per game) and has 18 touchdowns. Last year he finished with 1,923 yards (137.4 per game) and scored 39 times.

Miller and Martinez have plenty of practice both scoring touchdowns and firing balls into the end zone.

Miller, a sophomore, rushed for 13 scores -- best among Big Ten quarterbacks -- and connected with receivers on 15 more. Martinez, a redshirt junior, remains lethal on the ground (833 yards, eight touchdowns) but continues to evolve as a passer.

Last year he completed just 56.3 percent of his throws. Heading into Saturday’s game, Martinez is at 63.3 percent with the highest efficiency rating (148.3) in the conference.

Asked about his growth, Martinez replied: “It has been awesome. I’ve had a pretty good year so far. I’ve got to keep it going and win this Big Ten championship.”

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini recalled the frenzy surrounding Martinez as a redshirt freshman, when he rushed for eight touchdowns in his first three games.

“He burst on the scene so quickly and had so much success early,” Pelini said Friday, “people asked: Should he be a Heisman candidate? I had to laugh. He didn’t know what he didn’t know at that point.

“But to his credit, he got through some difficulties and kept working at the game, day in and day out.”

Ball’s career challenges came in 2010, when he got zero carries in the Badgers’ home upset of top-ranked Ohio State, and early this season.

Actually the trouble started Aug. 1, when he got attacked by several men in Madison and suffered a concussion. And with Wisconsin’s offensive line in tatters, he rushed for just 61 yards at Oregon State and 40 against UTEP.

Asked if Ball ever regretted his decision to forgo the NFL draft, Bielema replied: “I’m sure sitting in his room, you’re human and at times you have those thoughts, but he never let it show publicly and I never saw that side to him.

“One of the things I stressed to him ... is to remind him that sometimes you have to go through some things in life that are not pleasant to become better. He has taken those setbacks and championed them.”

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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