Liberty Bowl kicks off ISU’s QB controversy for 2013

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Sam Richardson had trouble keeping his dinner down Sunday night.

After a lackluster Liberty Bowl performance Monday, the redshirt freshman has a more daunting challenge on his plate – reclaiming control of the starting quarterback position.

Richardson held a firm grasp on the title 24 hours before completing just 10 of 21 passes for 129 yards and an interception in the Cyclones’ 31-17 loss to Tulsa.

Leading up to Monday’s rematch in Memphis, Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads squashed any question of a potential quarterback controversy at Sunday’s press conference.

Asked if a quick change were possible should Richardson struggle against the Golden Hurricane, such as the scenario that unfolded when Steele Jantz replaced a sluggish Jared Barnett midway through the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl, Rhoads was adamant that Richardson’s improvement through bowl preparation made this year’s quarterback situation significantly different.

“Sam’s performed well in anticipation of this game,” said Rhoads.”As we flip-flopped back and forth a year ago, there was probably a little bit more open competition going on in the month of December in anticipation of the Pinstripe Bowl. (It was) very different from this year.”

Though Rhoads commended Richardson for battling through a flu bug, Monday’s dismal outing left the head coach unable to comment on his starting signal caller moving forward – leaving speculation that now things are quite similar to a year ago.

“I’m not starting 2013’s quarterback conversation tonight,” Rhoads said at Monday’s postgame press conference.

The senior Jantz relieved Richardson, who was shaken up on a big hit, for a play in the second quarter and for good in the fourth, though Rhoads said it was Richardson’s fatigue – not the hit that led to Jantz replacing him.

“It was a gritty performance by a young man who was throwing up all night. I commend Sam for going as long as he did,” said Rhoads. “The decision to go as long as he did is because he is a good football player. We did not want to disrupt the rhythm of the football team and what he was providing for us. There was a time where he did not have the strength to finish up.”

Richardson’s rhythm from his first two performances against Kansas and West Virginia, where he tallied seven touchdowns, 162 rushing yards, and no interceptions – was evident in a 6-for-7 start, but disappeared soon after.

And just as quickly – so did Iowa State’s certainty at quarterback.

With the graduation of Jantz, whose high-risk play (23 interceptions in two seasons) fittingly ended with a fumble against Tulsa, the sophomore Barnett and Grant Rohach rise up the depth chart to vie for the starting job.

Barnett led the Cyclones past then-No. 13 TCU before struggling in losses to Kansas State and Oklahoma State, with Jantz replacing him in the latter. Barnett, who completed just 35-of-75 passes in the defeats, has struggled with accuracy throughout his two-year tenure in Ames (49 percent completion percentage) but has demonstrated an ability to engineer big wins. Along with the victory over the Horned Frogs this year, the sophomore led the Cyclones past No. 2 Oklahoma State and No. 19 Texas Tech last season.

Rohach, who will be a redshirt freshman this fall, is a highly touted prospect from Moorpark, Calif., who threw for 3,708 yards and 36 touchdowns in two years as quarterback at Moorpark High.

Both join Richardson in the running for the starting quarterback slot this spring – a position that takes on greater importance considering the Cyclones’ lack of a consistent ground attack, which averaged just 150 yards a game this year.

Shontrelle Johnson rushed for 120 yards in the season opener against Tulsa and Richardson was the only other Cyclone to surpass the century mark with 116 in the regular season finale against the Mountaineers.

While it’s difficult to determine how much Richardson’s illness affected his performance against Tulsa, it’s impossible to ignore Rhoads’ reluctance to discuss the quarterback situation following Monday’s loss.

With a third bowl appearance in four years and marquee wins over Nebraska (2009), Texas (2010), Oklahoma State (2011) and TCU (2012), it’s clear Rhoads has the program headed in the right direction.

Who lines up under center next year? That’s a bit murky.

And good reason to unsettle any Cyclone fan’s stomach.