MADISON, Wis. — Surely, the last thing Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema wanted this week was to field more questions about his team’s offensive ineptitude.
But another lackluster performance on Saturday night may have created the biggest question he’ll face during an already tumultuous early season: Who is the team’s starting quarterback?
Wisconsin escaped Utah State, 16-14, at Camp Randall Stadium when Aggies kicker Josh Thompson missed a 37-yard field-goal attempt wide right with six seconds remaining. The nail-chewing victory came in spite of the play of Badgers quarterbacks Danny O’Brien and Joel Stave, who combined to complete 7 of 16 passes for 78 yards and no touchdowns. And the uninspiring performances were evenly split.
Article continues below ...
O’Brien took all snaps in the first half; Stave was under center in the second half. Neither player did much to demonstrate he has taken ownership of the team.
In the first two quarters, O’Brien completed 5 of 10 passes for 63 yards. He threw an interception that was nullified because of a roughing-the-passer call. He also fumbled the ball away in Utah State territory, his second lost fumble in as many games.
The poor decision-making was enough to prompt Bielema to make an unusual halftime switch, in favor of a quarterback who had never taken a snap in a college game.
“The No. 1 reason I made (the) transition at quarterback was just to protect the ball,” Bielema said. “For us to win at Wisconsin, we can’t turn the ball over.”
Afterward, O’Brien did his best to offer politically correct responses. But his level of frustration with the move was evident.
“I was pretty surprised,” O’Brien said. “I knew I had the fumble down there on the pressure. But pretty surprised.”
Quarterback controversy may be too strong of a phrase to pin on Wisconsin (2-1) at this point. Stave, after all, didn’t exactly wow anybody with his second-half performance. The redshirt freshman completed just 2 of 6 passes for 15 yards.
Still, there is something to be said for being in the game when the tide turns. Wisconsin trailed, 14-3, at halftime. The Badgers won the second half, 13-0, with Stave repeatedly handing the ball off to running back Montee Ball.
“It was all right,” Stave said of his showing. “It’s all kind of a blur right now. I didn’t turn it over. That’s what I was told to do. As a quarterback, you can’t turn the ball over and you can’t set your team back. I was trying to make sure I didn’t do that.”
At one point, Stave handed the ball off to Ball on eight consecutive plays over two drives. On the first drive, Ball carried six times for 42 yards and scored a touchdown.
The switch to Stave in the second half caught several players off guard, including Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist last year.
“I had no idea about it until I was out on the field,” said Ball, who gained 139 yards on 37 carries. “None of us did until Stave ran out there. … I was shocked. I was like, ‘Where’s O’Brien?’ Other than that, there was nothing I could do about it.”
When asked to assess Stave’s performance, Bielema didn’t exactly provide a vote of confidence.
“It wasn’t a quarterback game,” Bielema said. “He didn’t get as many reps. Danny was our starter throughout the week. He got the majority of the reps. The two quarterback just doesn’t get the same type of experience that the starting quarterback does. I thought he handled it well.”
O’Brien, a redshirt junior, was supposed to represent the heir-apparent to former Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. The two shared a similar transfer story, both leaving Atlantic Coast Conference schools for Wisconsin under the graduate transfer exception rule.
It is clear now that O’Brien is far from the quarterback that Wilson was for the Badgers. Over the past six quarters, O’Brien has completed 25 of 48 passes for 235 yards with one touchdown, one interception and two lost fumbles. During that time, Wisconsin has scored a total of 10 points. Oregon State edged Wisconsin, 10-7, with O’Brien at starter last week.
This is a circumstance with which O’Brien is familiar. Last season at Maryland, he was benched late in the year and would have entered spring camp in a competition just to regain his starting job.
Now, yet again, his grasp on a starting role could be in doubt.
“We haven’t talked about it,” O’Brien said. “I’m sure we’ll sit down tomorrow and figure it out. I’m staying positive. Similar situation last year, different scheme. I’ve been here before, so I’ll keep it professional.”
The situation does not bode well for Wisconsin’s offense, which already underwent considerable change this week. Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson on Sunday after just two games because of the line’s inability to create a push at the line of scrimmage.
There wasn’t much a push on Saturday, either, even as Wisconsin kept its play-calling vanilla by running the ball 45 times. The Badgers averaged just 3.5 yards per carry.
“It’s been a difficult week,” Bielema said. “You try to make it as positive as we can. I told the group I knew it wasn’t going to be changed overnight. It’s some things we’ve got to get straight and get corrected.”
Those corrections certainly include the quarterback position. Although Stave might not have done enough to earn the job outright, the question will continue to linger this week: Who deserves to be Wisconsin’s starting quarterback?
“If I’m the guy, I have all the confidence in the world in myself,” O’Brien said. “If I’m not the guy, I’ll support whoever is in the game.”