MADISON, Wis. — All the doubt and the questions that surfaced during Wisconsin’s early-season struggles seemed a distant memory when the Badgers took the football field Saturday afternoon.
The stellar running game had returned, and the first-year quarterback looked confident. Most important, the Badgers were nationally ranked and winning again.
But with one third-quarter sack and a shoulder slam to the turf, the uncertainty resurfaced.
Badgers redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave, who had led a resurgent offense over the past five games, injured his left shoulder and did not return. The offense stalled with backup quarterback Danny O’Brien, and No. 25 Wisconsin went on to lose 16-13 in overtime to Michigan State.
“Obviously, you have a plan with Joel (Stave),” Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. “Just the change at quarterback changes the game itself. It doesn’t really change anything play-wise or anything like that. It was a difficult spot for him to come into.”
Stave was sacked for a 3-yard loss by Spartans defensive end William Gholston on the first play of the third quarter and the QB clutched his shoulder on the ground. At the time, Wisconsin led 7-3 and had gained 147 yards of total offense.
Over the rest of the game, including overtime, the Badgers only managed 43 yards of total offense.
Stave completed 9-of-11 passes for 127 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. O’Brien completed 5-of-11 passes for 44 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
“It’s tough,” O’Brien said. “I think there’s two things you can do. You can point to I didn’t get reps all week. But at the same time, that’s the life of a quarterback. You’re a play away at all times. Today showed that.”
To say Stave’s injury was the lone reason for the loss would do a disservice to all the other things that went wrong for Wisconsin. Michigan State entered the day ranked fifth in the country in total defense, allowing 277.1 yards per game, and certainly lived up to that billing on Saturday.
Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2 in Big Ten play) gained just 19 yards rushing in the game. This coming after the Badgers gained 804 yards on the ground in victories against Purdue and Minnesota the past two weeks. Badgers running back Montee Ball carried 22 times for 46 yards against on Saturday as the team had its three-game winning streak snapped.
“I knew they were a really good defense,” Ball said. “We were just steps away from making a big play, and that’s what’s frustrating the most. I give them respect for stopping us.”
One of the biggest plays of the game came after Wisconsin cornerback Marcus Cromartie forced a fumble that was recovered by Badgers defensive lineman Warren Herring at the Michigan State 18-yard line. On the ensuing play, Badgers running back James White rushed for an apparent touchdown, but it was called back because of a penalty.
The Badgers settled for a field goal and a 10-3 lead — an advantage the defense couldn’t hold despite playing well for much of the game. As a result, the Badgers’ 21-game home winning streak came to an end.
“When you have a group of guys who care that much about football, we invest so much in this, when we lose it’s a big deal,” Cromartie said. “When you win a lot, especially at home, you tend to take these things to heart.”
Where does Wisconsin go from here?
The status of Stave’s injury was not known after the game. Stave wasn’t made available to the media, but he was wearing a sling around his left arm as he entered the team’s locker room. O’Brien would certainly be the next man up on the depth chart if the injury keeps Stave out of action.
O’Brien began the season as the team’s starter but was pulled during halftime of Wisconsin’s third game against Utah State. The Badgers had scored just 10 points over the past six quarters with O’Brien in the game — including a 10-7 loss to Oregon State. His propensity to fumble did not sit well with Bielema.
In came Stave, who quickly established himself as a savvy pocket passer. During Stave’s first five starts, Wisconsin’s offense averaged 34.2 points per game.
“He does a great job under pressure,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s relaxed under pressure and can deliver. I’m sure (the injury) hurt them because you know he was the guy that was in charge at that point in time for them.”
O’Brien said he handled about 30 percent of the snaps in practice this week as a second-string quarterback but did not make any excuses for his performance.
At 3-2, Wisconsin still maintains a 1½-game lead in the Leaders Division over Indiana (1-3) in the race to reach Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game. Division leader Ohio State (5-0) and Penn State (3-1) are ineligible for postseason play.
Still, this certainly was not the way the Badgers envisioned entering their bye week — facing some of the same questions they encountered seven weeks earlier.
“It’s no secret at all that we took a step back,” Ball said. “No secret at all. We’re all men. And we’re not going to point the finger. We’re going to blame ourselves individually and take this bye week for what it is, correct our mistakes and move forward.”