Welcome back to another edition of the mailbag. This week, we dive into the long-term viability of Joel Stave as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, the Badgers’ most important player on the field for Saturday’s game against Ohio State and the possibility of running back Melvin Gordon leaving for the NFL.
Look for a link to submit questions for our next mailbag following the game, and we’ll post the answers Wednesday. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions this week. Here we go:
Q: It’s great that Wisconsin has three starting running backs who have carried them this far. But QB Joel Stave continues to be inconsistent and I see a possible Ohio State rout if he doesn’t pick up his game big time next Saturday. We’re talking about a team who hasn’t lost a game since 2011. Your thoughts?
— Jeff Ostach, Milwaukee
A: There’s no doubt Wisconsin’s passing game must improve if the Badgers hope to have any chance of beating Ohio State. I simply can’t see a scenario in which James White and Melvin Gordon carry the entire team on their shoulders in a victory.
That means it’s up to Joel Stave to deliver. And while many fans seem to think his time as a starter should end, I don’t believe that’s the case. Stave needs to stay composed because the environment in the Horseshoe will be nuts. And he needs to make a habit of finding Jared Abbrederis and the tight ends.
Abbrederis has become Stave’s safety valve, and the two have connected 23 times for 365 yards and three touchdowns. It’s a huge concern there isn’t a second wide receiver that has emerged as a reliable option. But that is nothing new for Stave, and he can look to his running backs and tight ends — though the status of starter Jacob Pedersen is up in the air after he sustained a leg injury against Purdue.
If Stave can’t connect on those deep play-action passes to keep Ohio State’s defense honest, this game could get out of hand in a hurry.
Q: Two 5-star running backs (maybe three) being handed the ball by a 1-star quarterback. Come on Gary…Curt Phillips can beat Ohio State. Stave will cost us the game! Too many games under his belt to play as bad as he has this season…bite the bullet…you picked the wrong guy. Our potentially great season is going for naught with him behind center. That Arizona debacle didn’t need to happen but Stave was part of the reason it happened. He would be good by now if he could be…time for a change…and now.
— Bill Gailbreath, Madison
Q: Why can’t the Badgers recruit a fairly top-notch quarterback? If Stave is the best they have, the other guys must be horrible.
— Carl Nelson, Hudson
Q: Stave seems to be the weakest link on offense. Is it accuracy or timing? Or both?
Just wonder if Philips would be a better option until Stave matures?
A: This seems to be a common refrain among fans that are jumping off the Stave bandwagon. And as is the case at programs across the country, the backup quarterback almost always seems to be flawless to fans … until he actually gets in the game.
Phillips has had his chances, and if he were a better quarterback, he would be the guy starting from the outset. It has been well documented, but Stave’s ability to throw the deep ball is what separates him from Phillips, and he has shown his capabilities this season. Eleven times, Stave has connected on pass plays of 20 yards or more and three have gone for more than 50 yards. A year ago, Phillips had just five pass plays of at least 20 yards in his seven appearances.
People seem to think Stave is some scrub that deserves to be a lifetime backup, but I think that’s all overreaction. Keep in mind Stave has completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 761 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions in four games. Last year in seven games, Phillips completed 56.8 percent of his passes for 540 yards with five touchdowns and two picks.
Phillips also has never thrown for 200 yards in a game, while Stave has done so four times. Phillips played respectable football last season against Ohio State — he completed 14 of 25 passes for 154 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions — but Stave still gives Wisconsin the best chance to win games. It would take a miserable performance against Ohio State for there to be realistic questions about Stave’s future as a starter, but I believe Stave is ready for the challenge.
Q: Could Bart Houston get a start sometime in the next few weeks? Also, what do you think of Melvin Gordon?
— Robert, Beloit
A: No, Bart Houston will not start in the next few weeks. The coaching staff is committed to Joel Stave, who is still growing as a college quarterback. The guy has started a total of nine college games, which isn’t even a full season.
Houston obviously is quite talented and may have the best arm on the team, but he’s not ready to be thrown in right in the middle of the Big Ten season.
As for Gordon, I think the guy is going to be a high-round NFL Draft pick when his time comes. He is putting up numbers that are simply astounding. His 156.0 yards rushing per game leads the country, and he’s only taking 13.3 carries per game. The players that rank 2-4 nationally are averaging 20 carries per game.
Gordon is the next great Wisconsin running back, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a Doak Walker Award finalist when it’s all said and done this season.
Q: Do you think Gordon will leave for the NFL or stick around like the backs in the past? If he keeps this up, he might be an early first round pick. He looks like an NFL back.
— Rich, Green Bay
A: If Gordon is projected as a first- or second-round pick, then he has to strike while the iron is hot. But the odds of him shooting up the draft board into that type of slot remain a mystery. Consider that Montee Ball was a Heisman Trophy finalist and was a projected third-round selection from the NFL Draft Advisory Board following his junior season.
Of course, Gordon and Ball are not the same players, and it will depend on team needs. This week, Sports Illustrated posted a mock 2014 draft, and Gordon was listed as the No. 29 overall pick to the Houston Texans. If that’s where he’s projected after the season, consider him gone.
I will say the running back position appears to have been devalued over the past few years. Consider that former Alabama tailback Trent Richardson went No. 3 to the Cleveland Browns in the 2012 NFL Draft. He was traded to the Indianapolis Colts last week. Usually, a top-three running back is considered to be a player you want to build a franchise around.
It’s also interesting to note how few running backs have been taken in the first round recently. In 2011, one running back went in the first round (Alabama’s Mark Ingram). In 2012, there were three first-round running backs (Richardson, Boise State’s Doug Martin and Virginia Tech’s David Wilson). In 2013, zero running backs went in the first round.
I still don’t think Gordon will wind up as a projected first-round pick by the time this season ends. The Big Ten grind is just beginning, and his numbers can only sink (you would think, at least). Running backs only have so many carries in them, but unless Gordon is a first- or second-round pick, he would be wise to come back for at least one more year.
Q: Do they have any hope of winning against Ohio St.? I think with their one-dimensional game, they will get beat by 25 to 40 points and start a big spiral down.
— Gary Johnson, Roberts
A: Well, there’s always hope. Ohio State is favored by seven points, and I find it highly unlikely the Badgers will lose by four or five touchdowns as you suggest. Plus, it’s not like Ohio State has simply blown Wisconsin out of the water in recent years. The Buckeyes needed overtime to win in Madison last season and a last-minute midfield heave for a touchdown to win in Columbus two years ago.
Wisconsin’s players are used to being in close games on big stages, and I don’t expect them to be rattled by the moment at all. They recognize what is at stake. If they can find a way to win, the Badgers would be in the driver’s seat to win the Leaders Division and play in a third straight Big Ten title game.
The Badgers have the defense to slow down the Buckeyes. It’s simply a matter of how effectively Wisconsin can move the ball on offense.
Q: What was the reason defensive pass interference wasn’t called on the passing play when the Badger receiver was tackled in the open? The receiver appeared to have a chance to get to the ball when the defensive pack took him down. I believe this play happened in the second quarter.
— Hank, Janesville
A: Hank, I think I know what play you’re talking about. It was a first-and-10 from Wisconsin’s own 27, and Joel Stave tried to connect with receiver Jordan Fredrick, who appeared to get tangled up with his defender as he ran across the middle of the field.
Since officials don’t provide explanations for a play that goes uncalled, the only thing I can think of is they determined the ball was uncatchable. Fredrick may have had a chance to catch it if he’s still moving at full speed, but that ball looked as though it was pretty far out of his grasp.
Of course, Wisconsin fans wish that play would have been called. Two plays later, Stave was intercepted, and Purdue cut the deficit to 14-10.
Q: Who will be the most important player on the field come Saturday night against Ohio State?
— Bob, Boulder, CO
A: There are a number of directions this answer could go, but I’ll say UW wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. The rest of Wisconsin’s receiving group has given us no reason to believe they’ll make big plays in key moments. Jeff Duckworth is the only receiver with a catch of more than 20 yards, and he’s still dealing with a hamstring injury he sustained while making that catch against Arizona State.
There’s a pretty good chance the Badgers’ running game will show up, but Abbrederis is the big play receiver who can keep Ohio State’s defense honest. If the Buckeyes decide to load the box with eight or nine players, that could free up Abbrederis in 1-on-1 situations. But don’t be surprised if Abbrederis faces double teams, too, with Ohio State determined to make another receiver beat that secondary.
This season, Abbrederis has caught 23 passes for 365 yards with three touchdowns. None of the other members of Wisconsin’s receiving corps has caught a touchdown pass, and they’ve collectively caught 13 balls for 166 yards. Abbrederis will once again be a go-to player Saturday.