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Wes Lunt vs. Christian Hackenberg: Who's the Better Quarterback?

The two most explosive arms in the B1G break the standoff this weekend. Which one has the upper hand?

Art by Aaron Rench
Art by Aaron Rench
Aaron Rench

This weekend, sophomore quarterbacks Wes Lunt and Christian Hackenberg will meet on the field for the first time. The significance of this is subtle, it's a matchup of two quarterbacks that could be great, and I will not sit idle and let it go unheralded.

Before the season began, preseason discussions tried to discern the best B1G quarterback for the upcoming season. The general winner was Ohio State's Braxton Miller (RIP until next year), but the unanimous second place was granted to Hackenberg. Most of these previews at least mentioned Lunt's potential, but not many wanted to do much more. At that time he hadn't thrown a in-game pass in two years, so you can't really blame them.

Lunt and Hackenberg have arguably the Big Ten's best arms, or, as the picture above show, arm-cannons. Given the chance, either can throw 30 to 40 yards down field with a powerful grace that most college quarterbacks don't get close to unless they stand next to olympic figure skaters.

But here's the problem: both have endured the season behind suspect offensive lines, which complicates this QB-grading process. Neither player gets to show what they can really do on an average play because they're too busy throwing contested passes or running for their lives. To make the race slightly more difficult to gauge, Lunt missed a combined four conference games due to a leg injury.

Before we move any further, you need to see some cold hard stats.

Name Games Passing Yards Cmp Att Pct Yds/Att Yds/Game TD INT Rate From Illinois
Christian Hackenberg 10 2318 207 373 55.5 6.2 231.8 7 14 106.4 No
Wes Lunt 6 1671 141 217 65.0 7.7 278.5 14 3 148.2 Yes

To give you some reference on those numbers, here's the same chart but using rankings amonst other B1G quarterbacks.

Name Games Passing Yards Cmp Att Pct Yds/Att Yds/Game TD INT Rate From Illinois
Christian Hackenberg 10 2nd 2nd 2nd 9th 10 4th 11th Tied 2nd 12th Tied Last
Wes Lunt 6 9th 7th 9th 1st 4th 1st 5th 14th 4th 1st

Right off the bat, you need to realize that passing yards is not a good stat to use in this case. Lunt hasn't had the same number of games as Hackenberg, but we can garner at least a basic knowledge of the Penn State offense. They pass a lot, throwing the second most in the conference (16th in the country), but having a 10th ranked yards per attempt isn't the way you want to do it. Would you want to drive from LA to New York in a F-250?

But by these stats alone, Lunt has quality rate stats. First in completion percentage, 4th in yards per attempt, 1st in yards per game and 4th in QB Rating. But Lunt's numbers are slightly inflated -- those games he missed due to injury featured the hardest opponents Illinois has faced all season (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State and Minnesota). Had Lunt played in those games, his rate stats would surely be reduced.

Hackenberg still has room to grow in terms of quick decisions. There's been a few times this season when he scrambles a little too early or tries to make difficult passes when it'd be wiser to just take a sack. But that's not to say he's explicitly better than Lunt. The Illini quarterback has tree roots for shoes. It takes him months to decide to scramble, and when he does, his passes become like coin-flips, both in the chance it gets completed and it's trajectory.

So neither signal-caller is flawless. But who is? These guys are still young with lots of room for improvement. The ceiling of their career arcs meander into the NFL Draft. It may surprise you to know that the B1G isn't exactly known for their crop of quarterbacks. The drought of Drafts without a first-round B1G quarterback dates all the way back to 1992 when Penn State's Kerry Collins was drafted fifth overall. That's so long ago that Peyton Manning was still in high school and Bill Clinton wasn't even president yet.

Let's say we put Lunt and Hackenberg in some kind of virtual reality machine, giving both players the same set of wide receivers and O-linemen, and seeing what they could do. (Preferably the using the greats of B1G-past -- WR: Braylon Edwards, Allen Robinson, A.J. Jenkins; OL: Orlando Pace, Someone from Wisconsin in the early 2010's, Jeff Allen.) I'd bet you three cheeseburgers that Lunt and Hackenberg would put up numbers worthy of the preseason hype.

But it's a fool's errand to dwell on the virtual reality machine. It does not exist, sadly; there's no way to judge based on talent alone -- a quarterback must have a team to make him great. And ultimately, that's the reason this game isn't getting the attention it deserves. The teams they play with are in major down slumps, especially on the O-line. By all accounts, B1G fans have been robbed of watching two very talented quarterbacks.

Next year, we'll get to watch them meet up again when Illinois visits State College in November. Both teams should be improved from where they are now, so maybe next year's matchup will be apart of the national conversation. They might even have winning records. Until then, we get to watch them this year, sometimes flailing, sometimes flashing the talent we know they have.