MADISON, Wis. — Joel Stave would like to make it clear he isn’t a perfectionist. Except that, after pausing for a few seconds to think about it, he decides that, yeah, maybe he is.
“Kind of I guess,” Stave said with a smile after Tuesday’s practice.
Wisconsin’s starting quarterback has set high goals for himself — sometimes so high that they might not even be realistically attainable. That is why, even on a night in which he completed 76.1 percent of his passes (16-for-21) for 189 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, he spent more time thinking about his five missed throws.
The way Stave sees it, if he could have stayed balanced in the pocket or better handled swirling winds inside Memorial Stadium, maybe a 21-for-21 performance during Wisconsin’s 56-32 victory against Illinois would have been possible.
“The incompletions are what stick in my head,” Stave said. “You can complete as many balls as you want. When you have the opportunity to convert a big third down or just opportunities to complete a deep ball and you don’t, those are the ones that really stick in your head. You come out feeling good because it’s a win. But I know I’m not where I want to be yet.”
Stave has taken flak from Badgers fans for some of his throws, primarily because of how poorly he has misfired to seemingly wide-open receivers. During Saturday’s game against the Illini, Stave badly underthrew receiver Jared Abbrederis on a long play-action pass, in which Abbrederis had beaten the last man in the secondary by five yards.
The play, Stave admits, should have gone for a 75-yard touchdown. Stave also missed on another pass to Abbrederis and two to tight end Jacob Pedersen.
“There are those glaring throws,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said Monday. “Trust me, the first guy that wants those back is Joel, and the second guy that wants those back is (offensive coordinator Andy) Ludwig. They talked about some different things and some possible adjustment that can help him as the game goes on to keep him in the moment.”
The root of many of those miscues has been poor footwork, Stave said, especially when the pocket is collapsing and he must make quick decisions with his throws.
“That’s something that can always continue to get better,” Stave said. “You can do as many drills as you want. Nothing is going to quite simulate the game when there’s actually pressure, knowing you’re going to get hit and you’ve got to make the right moves in the pocket.
“They’re not always going to be perfect, but you don’t ever want to throw something that’s a completely uncatchable ball. And those are the ones that get kind of frustrating when you know that was completely on me. That guy had an opportunity to catch it and run and I didn’t give him a chance. That’s something every quarterback wants to do.”
Ludwig added that, in addition to footwork, repetitive accuracy was paramount for a quarterback.
“That’s probably the same thing I said after Week 1,” Ludwig said. “That’s the quarterback’s job, and if you’ve got good feet, your accuracy is going to improve. He’s gotten better, but there are improvements to be made.”
In order to alleviate those mistakes and stay balanced, Stave said Ludwig presented him with a simple mantra.
“Coach Ludwig always says, ‘Don’t cowboy up,'” Stave said. “You don’t want your feet pointing at the line of scrimmage. You want to be facing toward your target. You don’t want to square up your target. It puts you in a bad position to throw.”
Despite some poor throws, the statistics will show Stave has made considerable progress from a year ago. Last season, Stave started six games and completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,104 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
In seven starts this season, Stave has completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,486 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Some might forget Stave is only a redshirt sophomore and has started a total of 13 career games — the equivalent to one full season plus a bowl game.
“I feel like I’ve been here a long time,” Stave said. “I’d say I feel more experienced. It’s a new offense this year, so you’re trying to continue to learn the ins and outs of the offense, the ins and outs of protection. But we learn so much with every game. We learn so much with every opportunity to play someone else. So I’d say I do feel pretty experienced.”
Stave is gradually developing into one of the better Big Ten quarterbacks this season. He ranks second in the Big Ten in completion percentage (63.5 percent), third in yards per attempt (8.3) and tied for second in touchdown passes (13).
The miscues still stand out, but more and more, so do the positives — hopefully something a perfectionist like Stave can eventually appreciate.
“He adjusts to those moments in those situations and continues to impress me down those lines,” Andersen said. “When it doesn’t work out for him, he stays status quo, which is a good trait. He doesn’t go too up and down. So he’s progressing.”