Big-play ability could mean Joel Stave starts at QB for Badgers

MADISON, Wis. — Maybe there is nothing more to say. Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have been battling to be Wisconsin’s starting quarterback in 2013 for more than five months. Yet here we are, nine days before the team’s season opener, and nobody seems certain which man will emerge from the first huddle of the game.

Not Phillips. Not Stave.

It is out of their hands at this point. And each player is getting tired of answering questions about the quarterback pecking order.

“Very tired,” Stave said. “I’ve been doing it since I’ve been here, regardless of what camp or what competition it was. That’s how it is, though.”

Added Phillips: “It’s kind of an automated response at this point. You’re so used to it.”

They might not have much to say on the topic, but surely there must be an answer to be found somewhere. Perhaps, then, developments during Wednesday’s practice — the final session of fall camp open to the media — provided a glimpse of the direction Wisconsin is headed.

Stave, a redshirt sophomore, earned the most snaps with Wisconsin’s No. 1 offense. He worked with the first-team offense and Phillips the second-teamers during a two-minute drill to close practice. And earlier in practice, Stave took the first snaps with the No. 1 offense against the scout-team defense. Phillips went second.

Of course, the order has shifted so many times during the first 22 of 28 fall practices that it’s difficult to discern any meaning. What are we to make of the situation? Nothing, if you ask offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who insisted the coaches “haven’t made a decision” on the starting quarterback.

“You saw both QBs with the ones,” Ludwig said. “Really with the O-line situation right now, there’s not a lot of two work. We’ve got two No. 2 O-linemen, so we’re not just wholesale subbing. We’re trying to keep guys fresh and stay healthy is what we’re really looking to do.”

Here’s what we do know: Stave pulled ahead of Phillips during the team’s first of two open scrimmages when he completed 7 of 12 passes for 128 yards with a touchdown. Phillips went 5 for 9 for 68 yards with a score. Stave completed a 65-yard touchdown pass off a play-action to receiver Jared Abbrederis, demonstrating his big arm and deep-play capabilities.

“I’d say that’s something I can do pretty well, something I’ve shown I’ve been able to do in games,” Stave said. “So I would guess that wouldn’t hurt me at all in the competition.”

But just when the competition appeared wrapped up, Phillips closed in on Stave by outshining him in the team’s second and final scrimmage Monday. He completed 6 of 11 passes for 100 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Stave, meanwhile, finished the day 5 of 10 for 62 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

Phillips connected on a 43-yard pass to Abbrederis as part of a two-play scoring drive, proving that he, too, can hit the long pass. And Phillips believes he isn’t out of the starting discussion yet.

“I think the knock on me has always been the deep ball,” said Phillips, who came back to school for a sixth year with the intention of earning the starting job. “I think anytime I’ve gotten an opportunity to do that, we’ve hit it. I haven’t had a deep shot that we missed. I feel good about that. I would hope that would have silenced a lot of that.”

Still, the numbers from last season suggest Stave is more apt to generate big plays. Wisconsin, perhaps more than most teams, relies on such plays in the passing game to keep defenders honest against the Badgers’ excellent running back group.

A year ago, Stave averaged 15.77 yards per pass completion, while Phillips averaged 11.73 yards. What’s more, Stave showed a far greater propensity for throwing long.

In eight games, Stave connected on 18 passes that went for 20 or more yards. Six of Stave’s passes went for 40 or more yards, with five going to Abbrederis.

Phillips did not have six completions of even 20 yards all season. In seven games, Phillips connected on five passes that went 20 or more yards. Only one pass, a 57-yard touchdown throw underneath to running back Melvin Gordon, went for at least 40 yards.

You could argue Phillips faced tougher defenses — Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska and Stanford — and that the play calling for him was more vanilla. He also was in his first season back from a third ACL surgery and didn’t possess the same leg strength he has now. But the sample size is big enough to suggest the type of skill set each quarterback brings.

Both quarterbacks have kept themselves in the starting conversation during fall camp by making smart decisions with their throws. Phillips said he’d thrown one interception the entire camp. He also fumbled a ball away during the team’s second scrimmage. Stave has had one interception in camp as well, to linebacker Chris Borland during a 7-on-7 drill.

Now, nine days remain. And the countdown to name a starter continues.

“I’d obviously like to know sooner or later,” Stave said. “It’s not my call. We’ll just leave it at that.”

We will. And we might not have an answer until one man breaks the huddle for the first series against UMass.

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