Immense value of several college QBs in area clear

Without Rees, Colter, Lynch and Garoppolo, their schools' teams would be in the lurch

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We interrupt Groin Injury Awareness Week in Chicago to bring attention to four college quarterbacks from the area who mean as much to their teams as Jay Cutler does to the Bears.

At Notre Dame, America's most unappreciated quarterback made history before making a hasty, unplanned exit against rival USC. Tommy Rees, the pride of Lake Forest and too often the scourge of Irish fans, left the game in the third quarter because of a neck injury after USC linebacker Lamar Dawson sacked him.

Over the final 24 minutes without Rees, Notre Dame gained just 38 yards. Replacement Andrew Hendrix took the offense back to its pre-1913 origins before Notre Dame teammates Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne popularized the forward pass against Army. Hendrix was 0-for-4 passing.

A funny thing happened on the way to a 14-10 victory over an equally inept USC offense: Rees was missed. Notre Dame's offense lacked rhythm and direction. Ironically, Domers who never embraced Rees started worrying if he ever would return. For Rees, who maximized his potential as much as any passer to wear a gold helmet, it was a long time coming.

Before the injury, Rees became just the fifth Notre Dame quarterback to throw for 6,000 career yards, behind Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen, Ron Powlus and Steve Beuerlein. Not since Rick Mirer has a Notre Dame quarterback beaten USC twice. Owning a 19-6 record as a starter since thrust into the role as a freshman, Rees ranks fourth in career touchdown passes with 49. He definitely will graduate among the all-time leaders in criticism.

One day when Rees is coaching football instead of playing it, he will reflect on everything he has endured in South Bend and realize how much better he is for the experience. Perhaps he already does. Rees could have transferred as coach Brian Kelly kept recruiting quarterbacks who were supposed to bury him on the depth chart. He could have responded to the trouble he made for himself in an off-campus incident 17 months ago by creating more. He could have checked out mentally as Everett Golson's backup in 2012 or withered under the uncommon scrutiny of a Notre Dame quarterback.

Instead, Rees responded in a way that still makes college football special for the majority of those privileged enough to play it. He grew up. He got up after getting knocked down. Now, Rees will lead Notre Dame at Air Force amid questions about his health. But, finally, they represent the right kind of concern for a quarterback with more moxie than talent whose value was proven.

At Northwestern, if they voted for the Big Ten's most valuable player after Saturday's inexcusable defeat to Minnesota, Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter would have been in the running — without running one play. Colter sat out because of an injured ankle that also limited him in the Wisconsin blowout loss.

More than anything, Northwestern's three-game losing streak revealed that the Wildcats cannot compete at the high level they achieved against Ohio State without Colter. The margin for error still remains too thin to survive the loss of Colter and, to a lesser degree, running back Venric Mark. Quarterback Trevor Siemian functions best as a complement to Colter but, when he's asked to carry the entire load, Northwestern's offense becomes ordinary and predictable.

With or without Colter, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald must find a way to win at Iowa before this once-promising season morphs into a flop that could force him to re-evaluate things about his program he thought he knew. I doubt ESPN would send a crew to cover that crisis.

At Northern Illinois, Jordan Lynch rushed for 316 yards against Central Michigan to break a single-game record for quarterbacks that former NIU quarterback Stacey Robinson set Oct. 6, 1990 — three days after Lynch was born. With 155 passing yards, Lynch accounted for 79.6 percent of his team's offense. Talk about the Jordannaires. At 7-0, NIU is 18th in the first Bowl Championship Series rankings, one spot behind Fresno State, the other school with a realistic shot at busting the BCS through the Fiesta Bowl door.

At Eastern Illinois, Jimmy Garoppolo — aka Jimmy Football — passed Saints coach Sean Payton to become the school's all-time leading passer with 10,841 yards. Garoppolo, a Rolling Meadows product, ranks first nationally in three FCS categories: total offense, passing yards and touchdown passes.

Not surprisingly, all 32 NFL teams have sent scouts to Charleston, Ill., and two general managers have attended Eastern games to evaluate Garoppolo in person. Garoppolo's combination of solid mechanics and decision-making project him as a passer who would appeal to an NFL team looking in the first three rounds for a promising young quarterback to develop.

Know of any?

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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