MADISON, Wis. — Joel Stave admitted his heart was pounding Saturday morning. Nerves. Excitement. All the natural emotions that spill from a player making his first career college football start were unmistakable.
Given the scrutiny surrounding Wisconsin’s quarterback situation and its previously inept offense, who could blame him? It was on Stave’s right arm to quell the fears of a skeptical fan base.
Then, the game began. Stave absorbed his first crushing hit in the pocket. He stood up. And his heartbeat slowed.
“Once you get that out of the way, then you just start playing,” Stave said.
By Saturday afternoon, he had played quite well, leading Wisconsin to a 37-26 victory against UTEP at Camp Randall Stadium. Stave, a redshirt freshman, completed 12 of 17 passes for 210 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
More important, he left Saturday’s game looking like someone capable of being Wisconsin’s starting quarterback of the future. It was a welcome sight for an offense that entered the day averaging just 16.3 points per game.
“Great quarterbacks are the guys that can make plays when there isn’t the right answer,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “He made some scrambles and some throws that were positive-yard plays in the first half that kind of kept some drives alive. I think that’s a huge thing for him confidence-wise to move forward because not everything is going to be as clean as you want.”
Stave became the first freshman to start at quarterback for Wisconsin since Jim Sorgi on Oct. 21, 2000. And there is every reason to believe he’ll continue to start this season for the Badgers.
Last week, Stave was unexpectedly tossed into action during the second half against Utah State. Wisconsin trailed, 14-3, and Bielema was fed up with quarterback Danny O’Brien’s inability to take care of the football. In three games, O’Brien had turned the ball over three times, including two fumbles.
Stave wasn’t asked to do much in the passing game then. He completed just 2 of 6 passes for 15 yards and handed the ball off 19 times in the second half. But Wisconsin won the game, 16-14, and Stave didn’t cough up the pigskin.
That performance was enough to convince Bielema that Stave deserved the starting job against UTEP. This time around, Stave knew he would start on Monday and took snaps with the first-team offense the entire week.
“It helped,” Stave said. “I got a lot more reps in practice. Just seeing things throughout the whole week and playing the game throughout the whole week really helps when you start.”
It also helped that wide receiver Jared Abbrederis returned from a concussion Saturday. With Wisconsin’s No. 1 receiving threat fully healthy, offensive coordinator Matt Canada took the opportunity to air it out. Stave connected with Abbrederis six times for 147 yards and a score, including a 60-yard bomb down the middle to the UTEP 8-yard-line. He found the rest of his wide receivers six times for 63 yards.
“I had a lot of excitement coming into the game, knowing the game plan, that we’d have some deeper passes and opportunities for us to go make plays,” Abbrederis said. “I was excited how (Stave) played today. The sky’s the limit for him.”
It wasn’t all pie in the sky for Stave. Although he performed admirably in his first start, plenty of room for improvement remains.
Most notably, Stave threw an ill-advised pass for an interception with 2:03 remaining in the second quarter when he telegraphed his throw on an out route to receiver Jordan Fredrick. UTEP cornerback Drew Thomas cut off the third-down toss and gave the Miners the ball at their own 45-yard-line.
UTEP would go on to make a field goal, trimming the halftime deficit to 23-9.
“Looking at it, I thought for sure it was going to be good,” Stave said of the throw. “He was playing off him by about 10 yards. He just kind of sat on the route. He played it really well. Obviously, I’d like to have it back, but from what I saw I thought it was going to be good.”
During one third-quarter drive, Stave fumbled in the backfield and also nearly had a pass intercepted over the middle.
Still, when Wisconsin needed a leader, Stave was there. He came to the huddle with 7:59 remaining in the game and Wisconsin holding a 23-19 edge. He completed all three of his passes for 36 yards, guiding the Badgers on a touchdown drive that put the game away.
“Joel is a great presence in the huddle,” Wisconsin center Travis Frederick said. “He’s a guy that approaches the huddle and approaches the game the same every time. It doesn’t matter if you’re down or you’re up. He just comes to the huddle calm, cool and collected, calls the play and gets it done.”
Stave, a Greenfield, Wis., native, had just one scholarship offer out of high school, and that came from mid-major Western Michigan. But he wanted an opportunity to play for the school he rooted for as a child, and now he’s been granted that chance.
“I’ve always loved this team and loved this state since I grew up here,” Stave said. “Just an opportunity to play here, play in the Big Ten is really exciting for me. I’m just really thankful for this opportunity.”
As for the skeptical fan base? For one afternoon at least, they were gone.
As Stave jogged off the field a winner on Saturday, the student section serenaded him with chants of his last name.
“That was really something,” he said. “I’d never heard that before. It was a cool experience.”
Under pressure on Saturday, Stave was equally cool.