MADISON, Wis. — It’s official: Joel Stave will be Wisconsin’s starting quarterback this week against Texas-El Paso.
Badgers coach Bret Bielema confirmed the switch following Thursday’s practice, three days after declining to tell reporters who would be his signal-caller with the first-team offense.
Saturday’s game represents the first start in the college career of Stave, a redshirt freshman from Whitnall, Wis. He’ll take over for Danny O’Brien, who was benched at halftime of Wisconsin’s 16-14 win vs. Utah State last week. At the time, the Badgers trailed 14-3.
Stave saw his first playing time in the second half and wasn’t asked to do much against Utah State in the passing game. He completed 2-of-6 passes for 15 yards and handed the ball off 19 times. But he also was in the game as Wisconsin staged a comeback for the two-point victory.
Bielema said the simplified play calling was not a result of lack of confidence in Stave.
“We didn’t restrict the game plan last week because Joel was in there,” Bielema said. “We restricted the game plan because of the situation, but also Joel wasn’t the guy all week. He was in a backup role. One thing that you can kind of make sure of is he’s had full reps this week.”
Stave certainly possesses the build of a Big Ten quarterback. He stands 6-foot-5 and 219 pounds. He came to Wisconsin’s program as a walk-on after receiving just one scholarship offer out of high school — from Western Michigan. Last month, he was rewarded with a scholarship from Wisconsin when former quarterback Joe Brennan left the program.
Stave impressed the coaching staff during spring practice, beating out Brennan for the No. 1 quarterback role out of camp.
“That helped a lot,” Stave said after last Saturday’s game. “Just knowing that I had run this offense and know basically what to do and how to handle the defense and the play calling, the signals and everything. It really made me a lot more confident.”
The spring camp performance came before O’Brien and his 17 career starts transferred into the program from Maryland. Many presumed O’Brien was the easy pick to replace graduated senior Russell Wilson at quarterback.
O’Brien appeared to be in the driver’s seat after a solid debut against Northern Iowa on Sept. 1. He completed 19-of-23 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns. But the offense sputtered with O’Brien in charge over the next six quarters. Wisconsin scored a total of 10 points during that span, which included a 10-7 loss at Oregon State — the Badgers’ first regular-season non-conference loss since 2003.
The poor scoring output was just part of the reason Bielema made the switch to Stave. Bielema said Stave had earned the right to start because of his ability to take care of the football. Although O’Brien hasn’t been terrible, completing 44-of-71 passes for 454 yards and three touchdowns, he also has three turnovers.
O’Brien fumbled the ball away against Utah State for a second consecutive game. He also had an interception nullified by a roughing-the-passer call, prompting Bielema to start Stave in the second half.
“When we went with him (Stave) at halftime, the No. 1 thing was ball security,” Bielema said. “I told him that. I told all of them that when the first decision was made. I think it’s resonated within our entire team. There’s been a huge emphasis on it. We just can’t play winning football if we turn the ball over as much as we were.
“I think the fact that Joel responded so well, didn’t have any issues, no fumbled snap exchanges, there wasn’t any incorrect calls or anything that really was his fault. He didn’t show me any reason why not to stay with him.”
Badgers left guard Ryan Groy said after last Saturday’s game that Stave stayed calm in the huddle despite the pressures of being unexpectedly tossed into a game setting.
“I think he did a great job,” Groy said. “He’s got a great arm. He’s got a great personality. He’s got great confidence in himself, his offensive line and the team. He went out there and was composed. He was good in the huddle. We rolled with it.”
Bielema described Stave as “mature beyond his years.” Still, Bielema did not allow the quarterbacks to speak to the media this week because he wanted them to avoid distractions in preparation for the game against UTEP.
“I just think from a head coaching perspective, it’s better for me to make sure I limit guys in certain situations to deal with the media,” Bielema said. “When I told Joel I wasn’t going to make him see the media, he kind of was relieved because he could just worry about prepping and moving himself forward.”
Asked whether the switch to Stave was a long-term move, Bielema was non-committal and even mentioned the play of third-string quarterback Curt Phillips.
“I make every move with the idea it’s going to be long term,” Bielema said. “But on the same account, you understand that we have a number of guys — Danny O’Brein has come in and done a great job during two-minute offense. For him, I’ve seen him do that.
“In my mind, those kind of situations, right now there’s nobody better in that situation than Danny O’Brien. I think Curt and what he brings to the table in certain situations gets you excited about him as a player. And then obviously Joel, just has a wide range of being able to do all of it.”
For the first time on Saturday, the college football world will find out exactly what Stave is able to do as Wisconsin’s full-time starting quarterback.