MADISON, Wis. — One of the more bizarre days in recent Wisconsin football history began with a three-paragraph press release in which head coach Gary Andersen announced quarterback Joel Stave was being "shut down" because of throwing shoulder issues. It ended with Andersen telling reporters after practice that Stave, in fact, was not hurt at all and not shut down.
"Is he injured?" Andersen said. "No. Is he ready to play right now? No. I used the word injury, so maybe bad choice of words."
The confusion escalated until Stave himself finally made an appearance. Stave insisted that, structurally, everything in his shoulder was fine despite injuring his AC joint during the team’s Jan. 1 bowl game and missing the final week of spring practice with lingering soreness.
"I’ve thrown how many thousands of balls in my life?" Stave said. "I know when it hurts and when it doesn’t. I don’t know what it is. It just isn’t right, I guess."
What, specifically, isn’t right? It was a question Stave had a difficult time addressing but one, he said, that seemed to boil down to this basic concept: He is inside his own head, a perfectionist who begins to overthink one bad throw, which leads to more bad throws. Before he knows it, he can’t complete simple tosses that he has spent years perfecting.
If the story sounds familiar, it is one shared by athletes even on the biggest stage of sports. In baseball, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass, Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel and New York Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch all at one time famously experienced what is known as the yips — a sudden, unexplained loss of basic skills.
Stave said he wasn’t sure if what he was experiencing classified as the yips.
"Maybe on some level," he said. "I’ve heard of that, too. The yips, a golfer who can’t hit it straight and stuff like that. I know I can throw the ball. That’s something that since I’ve been a kid, not even just football, I’ve been good at throwing things. I could throw a baseball. Give me a volleyball, I can chuck it across a gym.
"I’ve just been good at throwing things since I’ve been young. It’s not a lack of confidence. It’s not a lack of preparation or anything like that. It’s just a matter of getting back to feeling comfortable and feeling like the ball’s coming out the way it should."
Andersen said earlier Tuesday during the Big Ten coaches teleconference that he noticed Stave’s troubles around the time of the team’s second scrimmage on Aug. 18, which was largely closed to the media. Stave was poised to be named the team’s starter later that week until the issues surfaced, according to a source close to the situation.
"All I can do is look at Joel and try to help a kid through the process of where he goes and how he’s practicing," Andersen said. "But in Joel, we’ve just got to get him back where he needs to be. So my timeline doesn’t really matter by performance or any timeline I’m sitting at. I’m looking right now to say how do we get Joel to say I’m ready to go? That’s the timeline I’m looking for right now that’s important to me."
Stave’s throwing troubles are particularly startling given the success he’s experienced, having spent the better part of two seasons as Wisconsin’s regular starting quarterback. He is 13-6 in 19 career starts and put together one of the more impressive individual seasons by a Wisconsin quarterback a year ago. He threw for 2,494 yards with 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The 22 touchdown passes represented the second-most in program history, behind only Russell Wilson’s 33 in 2011.
Despite the statistics, however, coaches opened up the starting competition between he and Tanner McEvoy, a more mobile threat. Stave appeared to be in the lead early in fall camp by displaying more consistency passing and a greater ability to complete downfield throws. When McEvoy was declared the starter before Wisconsin’s season opener against LSU, the decision certainly raised eyebrows.
Badgers offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig didn’t say outright that Stave’s issues led to McEvoy being named the starting quarterback, though he also did not necessarily deny its impact.
"I think what it impacted was Joel’s performance, which led us to make the decision we made," Ludwig said. "I feel good about that decision. But you’d like to have every man on the roster full go, so we’re anxious to get Joel back with us."
McEvoy struggled during Wisconsin’s 28-24 loss against LSU, when he completed 8 of 24 passes for 50 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. At the time, some questioned the decision to keep him in the game. Andersen said Tuesday that redshirt sophomore Bart Houston would have been the team’s backup if the need arose. Houston has thrown one pass in a college game. True freshman DJ Gillins, meanwhile, is now the team’s No. 3 quarterback.
Even during warmups before the season opener, Stave’s throws were landing well off target — a remark that television broadcasters noted on the air.
"I’ll be throwing it good, throwing it good and then all of a sudden I feel like I hang on to it too long," Stave said. "One will sail, one will slip and then you start thinking, ‘Oh I’ve got to hang on to it longer.’ That’s what happens when you start thinking too much."
There was some confusion as to why Andersen initially issued a press release Tuesday morning hinting at the fact Stave was injured before later backtracking. Andersen, apparently, wanted to be proactive about sending information out before the team’s second game in case the team needed a backup, which wouldn’t have been Stave. He also was trying to protect Stave from the actual reason for his demotion. But Stave called for a previously unscheduled interview session with the media Tuesday night to explain his situation.
Both Andersen and Stave made a point to note that Stave still was practicing with the team and attending meetings. But he also has not worked in team drills, performing only individual work instead.
When would Stave be comfortable returning to team drills?
"I feel like tomorrow, tonight, whenever I get the next chance to," Stave said. "I’ve just got to take advantage of the chances that I get. I know I can do it. I think the coaching staff knows I can do it. I’ve shown that I can for two years."
However, no timetable is set for Stave’s return because the decision will largely be based on when Stave feels ready. Stave, of course, hopes that comes sooner rather than later.
"Things aren’t always going to go your way," Stave said. "It’s all about how you respond to it, how you bounce back, how you handle adversity. Right now, I’ve had a little bit of adversity thrown at me, and now I’ve got to handle it like I’ve always handled adversity."