After INT, Joel Stave bounces back for strong showing in win

MADISON, Wis. — Joel Stave delivers a perfectly thrown spiral 50 yards downfield to a streaking wide receiver in stride, the type of toss only he can provide. He also can stare down his first look on a pass play and send a head-scratching throw into double coverage for an interception.

That type of unpredictability from Stave is confounding at times. But what has made Stave stick as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback has been his resilience following those mistakes. And on Saturday, he was at his best during No. 21 Wisconsin’s 48-0 blowout of overmatched Tennessee Tech at Camp Randall Stadium after being at his worst.

Stave tossed a second-quarter interception in Tennessee Tech territory — his second in as many games — and then proceeded to complete his next 13 throws with a display of confidence and poise that was telling of the sophomore signal caller. That streak included a stellar 10-for-10 touchdown drive in the final two minutes of the first half, which gave Wisconsin a 28-0 lead.

For a quarterback making just the eighth start of his college career, Stave’s tough exterior proved encouraging, particularly as Wisconsin begins a far more difficult stretch of its schedule.

“A quarterback, you’re going to throw a pick, you’re going to make a bad decision,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “It’s going to happen, and it’s part of the process. I think the challenge is you just can’t use the youth card. You can’t just say, ‘Well he’s young, so that’s OK.’ Because it’s not. It’s not OK for anybody to make mistakes.

“For him to bounce back and kind of let it roll off his back is kind of like a corner. They catch a fade ball for a touchdown or whatever it may be, you’ve got to go on and play again.”

Stave certainly reacted like the player Andersen thought he could be when he selected him as Wisconsin’s quarterback over backup Curt Phillips. He completed more passes in the first half (18) than he had in any full game in his young career, which prompted Tennessee Tech coach Watson Brown to call Wisconsin’s passing game “underrated” afterward.

Stave’s previous best in a game was 16 completions against Illinois last season. He finished Saturday’s game 24-of-29 for 219 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.

“I try and stay consistent regardless of what happened the first drive, what happened the last couple plays,” Stave said. “Whether it’s bad, whether it’s good, you don’t want to get too high or too low. Just make sure you’ve got to be that one constant in the huddle, regardless of what else is going on because you’re calling the plays and ultimately you’re starting every play with the cadence. You want to make sure that you’re confident and comfortable with what you’re doing.”

A week ago, during Wisconsin’s 45-0 season-opening victory against UMass, Stave underthrew a pass that was intercepted at the Minutemen 3-yard line, and he completed only 4 of 11 first-half throws for 36 yards. Rather than sulk about his poor performance, Stave unleashed his big right arm in the second half.

Badgers offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig made a point to draw up a deep play action pass for Stave to start the second half to build his confidence. He connected on a 65-yard touchdown to Jared Abbrederis and finished the half 5-of-6 for 161 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

That growth appeared to continue on Saturday. Stave said he “wasn’t happy” with his interception and made a point to remain calm. Andersen praised Stave for displaying better leadership skills against Tennessee Tech than he had at any point during Andersen’s eight-month tenure as coach. And his teammates noticed as well.

“He felt more poised in the pocket, in the huddle was just kind of more confident,” Abbrederis said. “He’s having fun playing the game.”

The highlight of the day for Stave was his two-minute drill, which began with 1:51 remaining in the first half. He completed two passes to tight end Jacob Pedersen, two to Abbrederis, two to running back James White and one to receiver Jordan Fredrick before the Badgers called timeout with 44 seconds remaining.

Stave found Kenzel Doe and Derek Straus out of the timeout and capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brian Wozniak with 19 seconds remaining.

“That was something that we practiced,” Stave said. “It was really good to see it get clicking in a game like that. We’ve got to be smart where you go with the ball, make quick decisions in the two-minute drive. You can’t take a sack, so we did a great job of protecting and getting the ball out quick.”

Despite completing 82.7 percent of his throws, Stave and Andersen both cited the need for continued improvement in the passing game. Stave short-hopped a throw to Abbrederis while backed up in his own end zone and another short toss to receiver Jeff Duckworth later in the game.

“Numbers don’t always necessarily tell the whole thing,” Stave said. “There was one — on a fourth-and-two that I threw right into the ground — I’d really like to have back. We’ve got to make sure we’re consistent in that area.”

Two blowout victories into the season, Stave has yet to truly be tested by a BCS-level defense. For that reason, Andersen said he couldn’t tell how much Stave had grown as a game manager. But he’ll have a much better idea when Stave faces Arizona State next Saturday.

Which Stave emerges will depend on how he is able to react to mistakes.

“We’re playing good teams,” Stave said. “There is going to be ups and downs in that alone because they do a good job, they prepare well. I’d say I’m not as much worried about expectations, just trying to manage the game, make good decisions and be smart with the ball.”

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