Commentary

Rose QBs offer substance over style

Originally Published: December 30, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Their physical characteristics are different. The thatch atop TCU quarterback Andy Dalton's head is flaming red right out of a Crayola box; his jaw is as square as a city block. Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien has light brown hair and a heavy-lidded stare, as if he's perpetually one Red Bull short.

Their talents are different. Dalton has thrown for more than 10,000 yards and is mobile enough to have run for more than 1,500. Tolzien paints corners like Greg Maddux. He leads the nation in completion percentage (.743).

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireAndy Dalton has directed TCU to a 24-1 record over the past two seasons.

But the quarterbacks who will start the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO on Saturday (ESPN, 5 p.m. ET) have careers that have traveled the same arc. They are a testament to the inexact nature of recruiting. They exemplify the importance of brainpower in the operation of the modern offense. They are revered by their teammates as leaders. And man, do they know how to win.

Just don't ask them to do it with a lot of sizzle. Dalton and Tolzien have yet to master the art of drawing attention to themselves.

Dalton, who turned down UTEP and Memphis in order to sign with TCU, will make the 49th start of his college career Saturday. He is 41-7 as a starter, and, of course, 24-1 over the past two seasons.

Tolzien turned down Toledo in order to sign with Wisconsin. That was it.

"And I was actually going to have to grayshirt at Toledo," Tolzien said. "We all understand it's kind of like a college draft. They've got their board of guys and I was probably somewhere on the lower end of that."

He is 21-4 as a starter since taking over the offense a year ago. This season, not only was Tolzien a Campbell Trophy finalist but he beat out Dalton, among others, to win the Johnny Unitas Award as the best senior quarterback in the nation.

Dalton and Tolzien are praised for their game management. That's the kind of quarterback that coaches love. They do wonders for winning percentages. But they are about as sexy as flannel pajamas.

"He does a very good job of getting them in the right place, getting the ball to the right people," Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said of Dalton. "He's got a quick release. He doesn't take sacks. … He's a lot like Scott Tolzien."

Dalton won the starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2007 and started the opener against Baylor.

"I still think back to the first play of my career," Dalton said, "looking out at the defense, just seeing a big blur, not really knowing what they're doing."

But, he added, he completed the pass. Dalton threw for 205 yards and a touchdown and led the Horned Frogs to 27-0 victory over the Bears. He started every game but one as a freshman and missed two starts as sophomore because of injury. Otherwise, Dalton has been there every week.

"It's a huge, huge challenge," Doeren said, "not just for me, obviously, but for the guys. They have to understand that he's seen everything. There is nothing that we're going to put on the field that he hasn't looked at before."

But it's not just experience. There's a native intelligence that grasps everything that his coaches throw at him.

"Some kids you have to talk about it," TCU co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Justin Fuente said. "You have to draw it, you have to walk through it, you have to see it in a game, you have to make a mistake, and then you have to come back and you finally get it. Andy, you can sit there and say, 'OK, when this happens, this is going to happen,' and he can see it in his mind and know what you're talking about."

Dalton has been throwing to starting wide receivers Jeremy Kerley and Jimmy Young for four years.

"Andy can look at me and know what I'm thinking about the football," Kerley said.

Against SMU early this season, TCU made only one first down on its first two possessions. The Horned Frogs fell behind, 7-0.

"We felt as if we should be playing a lot better than we were," Kerley said. "When the play was called, he kind of looked at me to step up and be that guy. Instantly, I picked up on it, went out, ran my route hard and broke it off."

Dalton completed a 25-yard pass to Kerley at the Mustangs' 24. TCU scored two plays later and went on to win 41-24.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireScott Tolzien is 21-4 as a starter and guided the Badgers back to Pasadena.

Tolzien labeled himself a nerd as a freshman. He didn't get near the field. But he never stopped working toward the day when he would get his opportunity.

"I remember coming in as a freshman, he knew that playbook like the back of his hand," Wisconsin free safety Aaron Henry said. "It was utterly ridiculous. Oh my gosh. He just knew it to a T."

"I remember reading this article on Donovan McNabb," Tolzien said. "This was when I was a freshman in high school. He said, 'You know what? I'm always concerned that someone's outworking me. That's what it's all about. Who's going to outwork the other guy? That's going to be the difference.' I believe in that, and it's gotten me where I am today."

You don't complete three of every four passes if you don't know where everyone on the field is going to be.

"He's just smart. He's ridiculously smart," Henry said. "He doesn't make many mistakes. He does a great job at reading defenses before they even line up. A lot of times he knows what's going to happen before it even happens."

Tolzien and Dalton are as overshadowed as college seniors as they were as high school seniors. Auburn junior Cam Newton has won the major awards, from the Heisman Trophy to the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award. Stanford sophomore Andrew Luck is the focus of NFL draft talk.

Dalton and Tolzien will have to be satisfied with conference championships, top-five ratings and closing out their careers in the Rose Bowl. Life in the shadows turned out pretty well.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com