MADISON, Wis. — The countdown to Wisconsin’s first football game of the 2013 season stands at 133 days. And if Saturday’s spring game was any indication, it might just take all 133 days before the Badgers finally choose a starting quarterback.
OK, perhaps we’re talking too much hyperbole. Maybe it will only require 123 days.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Badgers quarterback Joel Stave said. “That’s kind of how I’ve known it since I’ve been here. I don’t mind the competition at all. It makes everyone better and it’s good for the team.”
As it stands, Curt Phillips and Stave are locked in a tight battle to be the No. 1 signal caller. The two have essentially been 1A and 1B on the depth chart, with Phillips slightly edging Stave throughout spring practices.
On Saturday, Stave was the better quarterback, leading the only two touchdown drives of the game for Team White. Team Cardinal (defense) would go on to beat Team White (offense) 61-47 thanks to a convoluted scoring system. Of course, one excellent performance from Stave while facing a depleted defense won’t decide which man will start the season-opener Aug. 31 against Massachusetts.
“Obviously, I think if you asked either of us, we’d say our goal is to separate ourselves as soon as possible,” Phillips said. “At the same time, I’m sure it will be a battle, and it’s something I’m looking forward to.”
Stave completed 15 of 20 passes for 161 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. His longest completion was a 24-yard pass to tailback Melvin Gordon that reached midfield. Stave would cap the drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to fullback Derek Watt, who emerged out of the backfield untouched in the front left corner of the end zone. Stave also led another touchdown drive that ended with an 11-yard run from Gordon.
Phillips, meanwhile, completed 8 of 13 passes for 82 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. His longest throw was a 31-yard completion to receiver Kenzel Doe on the first drive of the game. Kyle French closed that drive with a 27-yard field goal. He also hit a 24-yard field goal on a different Phillips drive.
While Stave’s numbers looked better, it’s important to note the run-pass ratio during each player’s repetitions were decidedly different. Stave, for example, threw the ball on 15 of 19 plays in the first half. Phillips threw on nine of 23 plays in the first half. Neither player said those numbers were by design.
Still, Badgers coach Gary Andersen concurred Saturday was as good as Stave has looked all spring.
“I thought Joel was poised today,” Andersen said. “It wasn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. They caught the ball good for him. I thought we were getting in and out of our routes better. Protection was much better. Now, I will say this: the defense today was very vanilla. And offensively, we were very generic. But we did throw the ball. And we did catch the ball better than we have all spring. Today, that was very encouraging.”
As for Phillips, Andersen was equally complimentary, not tipping his hand as to which player had the edge with the 15th and final spring practice wrapped up.
“Curt had good demeanor,” Andersen said. “The turnovers were down. He was poised. He had composure like he’s had and you would expect from a cagey veteran, which he is. He threw the ball. He got some balls down the field and did some good things. He probably had a couple he’d like to get back, but so does Joel.”
Each quarterback provides something different for the offense, which makes the competition especially intriguing. Phillips is a sixth-year senior who manages a game well and commands the respect of his teammates. He also is capable of being a more mobile threat despite undergoing three ACL surgeries.
But if Stave has an advantage, it’s in his ability to complete the long ball. Stave is much more accurate down the field and averaged 15.8 yards per completion last season in eight games. Phillips averaged 11.7 yards per completion a year ago while appearing in seven games.
“That’s something that I showed that I could do last year,” Stave said. “We were very successful with that last year. I think that’s something we can bring to the table again this year. And when you have that threat of every once in a while a 50-yard bomb down the field, it really forces defenses to play more honest. Safeties can’t come crashing down on the run, things like that.”
Last season, Stave emerged as the starter in Week 4 for Danny O’Brien and went on to start six consecutive games. Phillips took over when Stave broke his collarbone Oct. 27 against Michigan State and started the final five games — including the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl. It was a study in perseverance for Phillips, who dealt with ACL injuries that kept him out of action in both 2010 and 2011.
Last spring, Phillips couldn’t fully participate in practice and missed the spring game entirely while still recovering from surgery. Although he underwent another surgery for a torn meniscus that took place in January during the Rose Bowl, he bounced back in time for spring practice this time around. And he said he had reason for optimism, despite playing what he called an “average” game on Saturday.
“I think just proving that you can be healthy is something that’s big,” Phillips said. “Obviously, I was kind of limited coming into spring ball. Now, I couldn’t be more excited to be able to go into summer workouts and build off of what we did this spring and actually be healthy and show that I can continue to do that.”
The bigger question as fall approaches is whether Phillips and Stave can hold off junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy. McEvoy won’t practice with the team until fall camp, but he is the only quarterback on the roster to be recruited by the current coaching staff. His ability to serve as a dual-threat quarterback could provide a significant challenge to Phillips and Stave.
Andersen has used mobile quarterbacks in years past. And while neither Phillips nor Stave will wow anybody with speed, Andersen said both could make contributions to an occasional option look.
“If the ability is there for him to make some plays with his legs, we’ll allow him to do it,” Andersen said. “I believe the young men in this program can do that. The ability to have a touch of option in the future will be there for us without question.
“The read-zone, you saw that two or three times today, and they don’t have to go 80 yards when they do it. It’s just the fact that you have it that causes some problems for people. The young men in our program have the ability to do that.”
Which quarterback will have the opportunity to do it on game day? Check back in 133 days.