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Joel Stave’s strange journey ends with him being Badgers ultimate winner

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Joel Stave’s collegiate football career can only be described as strange. He’s seen Big Ten championships, three different head coaches, two transfer quarterbacks put ahead of him and still found himself as one of the best career quarterbacks in a Wisconsin Badgers uniform.

Many a quarterback has seen change and failed — even inside the Big Ten. Christian Hackenberg, a one-time 5-star prodigy, has been ruined by coaching change and its resulting horrid offensive line at Penn State, for the most recent example.

However, the former in-state walk-on conquered all of the adversity put in front of him during a four-year journey few would have survived, let alone thrived in.

It was only fitting then, that the ultimate fighter would become the ultimate winner in a Badgers uniform. As the clocked ticked away on Wisconsin’s 23-21 Holiday Bowl victory, it was also victory No. 31 for Stave as a starter — a feat no other quarterback in UW history had obtained.

He’ll be etched in the record books as the No. 1 quarterback in terms of career wins, yet he also may be the most maligned quarterback in UW history as well.

Maybe the only thing more fitting than going out a winner was the fact that it was Stave surviving a strange set of circumstances within the Holiday Bowl that got him win No. 31.

Stave and the Badgers weren’t expected to outduel USC’s high-powered passing attack, but that’s exactly what happened when it mattered most. Before a final drive flurry, Stave was outdueling Kessler on the stat sheet in a major way.

As it was, Stave finished the game completing 64 percent of his passes for 183 yards and a touchdown.

Not eye-popping numbers, but efficient and important at opportune times. Stave was a perfect complement to a defense that was holding the Trojans down for the majority of the game.

Kessler would ultimately finish with 221 yards, but completed just 56 percent of his passes and had a touchdown to go with an interception.

However, the biggest difference came in Stave’s ability to be clutch in the face of immense pressure. This time the pressure came in the form of a crazy situation for his team and a crazy individual situation.

As the Badgers tried to come back from a 21-20 deficit in the middle of the fourth quarter, Stave took a hit and was inadvertently stepped on by a USC defender, appearing to take a foot to the face.

Stave was bloodied and perhaps suffered from a broken nose.

Instead of just allowing Bart Houston to take over for more than was necessary, Stave toughed it up and put some tape across his nose once the bleeding was under control and stuffed a cotton swab up his nose and went right back out there.

What resulted was classic Joel Stave, as he led the Badgers on a 7-play, 42-yard drive to put UW in a position to kick a potential game-winning field goal. As sophomore kicker Rafael Gaglianone’s kick went through the uprights with just 2:27 to go, Stave’s job was complete.

He had done it again — bringing the Badgers back from the brink of defeat and putting the rest of his team in position to win it.

It was just the final twist in what would be a hugely successful, but also controversial career. Stave didn’t do it alone either, another hallmark of his historic career.

The defense came through, as Jack Cichy capped off a fearsome second half (game-high 9 tackles, 3.0 sacks) with a tip of Kessler’s third down pass right in to the arms of a waiting Sojourn Shelton.

Shelton’s interception was the lone one of the game, and while UW didn’t get a first down on the ensuing possession, the time off the clock forced USC’s hand right back in to the strength of the Badgers defense — pass rushing.

Wisconsin’s defense force a 4-and-out and it was all over but the trophy presentation. Stave not only hoisted a second-straight bowl game title trophy, he also raised a MVP trophy for himself in this one.

However, the story begins some five seasons ago when Stave was a little freshman that no one knew. The Wisconsin Badgers quarterback went from little known quantity to intriguing prospect following an impressive 2011 spring football game. Many in observance saw him as the best option amongst a wholly unimpressive group around him.

Scholarship names like Joe Brennan, Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips all failed to impress or were injured in spring ball. That’s where Stave stepped in, showing a glimmer of hope on a dreary day in terms of the weather and the performance of quarterbacks around him.

However, Stave was just a walk-on freshman that entered college a semester early. Bret Bielema pulled one of the biggest recruiting jobs of his career in the early summer, getting former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson to transfer for his final season after UW lost long time starters Scott Tolzien to the NFL.

Stave would sit that season and redshirt, but still many doubted if he would be an answer ever in his career at Wisconsin.

Wilson would go on to set all sorts of single-season records and become one of the most beloved Badgers of the last decade. It didn’t hurt he did it with style, flair and a fun-loving attitude while also being ultra-competitive.

Stave? Well, he’s about the exact opposite of Wilson in terms of persona and personality. From day one to the very end of it all, Stave wasn’t exactly easy in front of the cameras or reporters.

Having been there for his first go-round with the media and during his final go-round, Stave never got used to the bright lights — it simply wasn’t and isn’t who he is.

He’d rather wear a college hoodie and play the piano than deal with questions from throngs of media and live in the spotlight that being a starting quarterback at a major university brings.

Still, Stave and Wilson had one major thing in common — an undeniable craving for competition and winning.

Wilson would go 11-2 during his one year in Madison, while Stave would finish 31-10 for the fourth-best winning percentage of any quarterback in UW history.

The next season, Stave still wasn’t thought of as the ultimate option and Wisconsin looked to Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien to be the one-and-done option to continue UW’s streak of Big Ten championships.

O’Brien turned in two-and-a-half lackluster (and that’s being nice) performances before Stave got the call. He would lead the Badgers to a comeback victory over Utah State, and he never looked back as the starter again in 2012.

Stave would go on to finish his first campaign of action with 1,104 yards and six touchdowns to three interceptions in just eight total games. It was a promising start, but before he could get comfortable change was about to come in waves.

With original offensive coordinator Paul Chryst already off to the head coaching gig at Pitt in 2011, Stave would take in a new head coach the following year as Bielema left for Arkansas and AD Barry Alvarez went on to hire Gary Andersen of Utah State.

Andersen opened up the QB competition in 2013 and again in 2014, with Stave responding well the first time around. He competed in 13 games and passed for 2,494 yards and a career-high 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions.

Even as late as the 2014 season, Stave still was fighting for his starting job. Head coach Gary Andersen wanted a running option at quarterback and shoved Tanner McEvoy down the throat of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig at the end of fall camp.

What ensued was an offense so one-dimensional that it barely escaped non-conference play with less than the opening loss to LSU. Stave also was suffering from the famous case of the “yips” and only came on after a disastrous start by McEvoy in the Big Ten opener against Northwestern.

Stave clearly wasn’t al the way back from those yips, and was unable to complete the comeback he had done so many times before — throwing a key interception as Wisconsin was pushing for a go-ahead drive.

However, he was clearly sparking a moribund offense and took over as the full-time starter after that game.  Stave would finish his junior season with 1,350 yards and nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions. He also completed a career-low 53 percent of his passes.

The quarterback who survived all comers, all critics and his own mental issues after getting knocked down would still face one more larger hurdle.

Andersen took off following the 2014 season, leaving Alvarez to hire a familiar face in Paul Chryst. Nearly immediately, Chryst canned any talk of a quarterback competition and named Stave his starter.

It all led to another 10-win season for the Badgers and a ton of career records for Stave as well.

To be sure, he didn’t earn all of the 31 wins on his own. He certainly had help from the likes of Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement at running back and multiple NFL draft picks ahead of him on the offensive line.

He also had some consistent wide receiver named Alex Erickson, who was two receptions (77) shy of breaking the school record for single-season receptions (78) currently held by Jared Abbrederis from the 2013 season.

Not to forget about a defense that has grown from very good to one of the most feared in all of college football.

Still, Stave finishes tops in wins (31), had the most 200-yard passing games in a career (18), the most attempts, second in career passing yards (7,635), career touchdowns (48) and holds many more individual season records as well.

All of that for a walk-on that was passed over twice and faced with plenty of adversity, competition and injuries throughout his career.

Not too bad for a guy few loved and most enjoyed hating on over the last five years in a Badgers uniform. Perhaps some distance will make Badger fans remember just how good the times were with Joel Stave behind center, directing this team and getting positive results in the face of so many obstacles.

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Badgers football

Badgers fall victim to the trap, lose to Illinois

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This is why they don’t play the games on paper. On paper, the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers should have been able to make quick work of a struggling Illinois Fighting Illini team.

Instead, it was a slog for the Badgers offense and Illinois took advantage of three turnovers for 17 points en route to a shocking 24-23 victory.

With the Badgers driving to potentially salt away a hard-fought victory, Jack Coan threw just his second interception of the season and Illinois drove the ball deep in to Wisconsin territory and kicked a game-winning 39-yard field goal as time expired.

Wisconsin’s usually rugged run game was off, and the stingy run defense was far from that. Yes, Jonathan Taylor went over the 5,000-yard mark for his career on the first carry of the game, but he would put up just 132 yards on 28 carries on the day and UW’s defense allowed a season-worst 141 yards on the ground to Illinois.

Prior to this game, Wisconsin’s worst performance on offense was 97 yards against Northwestern.

Taylor’s struggles included a brutal turnover, as he gained a first down at the Illinois 17-yard line but coughed up the football trying to fight for extra yardage a third time on the play.

Illinois drove the ball down for a touchdown in just 1:19 of game time and what could’ve been a three-score game turned in to a 23-21 lead with 5:53 to play.

Wisconsin drove the ball past midfield on the next possession appearing poised to put the game out of Illinois reach again, but stumbled near midfield.

On a 2nd and 11, Coan attempted to drop a pass to Jake Ferguson in between the zone. However, Tony Adams had backed off the underneath and picked off the pass at the Illinois 47-yard line.

From there, Illinois ripped off big run after big run to get themselves in to field goal range and the rest was history.

Ironically, it was Coan who powered the Badgers offense for most of the day, throwing for 263 yards on 24 of 32 passing.

Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown combined for 153 yards on the day for the Illini on 28 carries, and came up huge when they needed it as the game went on.

Illinois outplayed the Badgers up front on both sides of the ball and deserved this win.

This was easily the most shocking loss in the Paul Chryst era and a date with Ohio State looms large if Wisconsin wants to continue to hope to make it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.

A loss next week and all control of their own destiny goes out the window.

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Badgers mid-season report card: Defense

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As Saturday’s game against Illinois inches closer to kick, it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that we are at the halfway point of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers season.

UW is 6-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country in both polls (if you want to care about those things). So, how did Wisconsin get here and who has been vital to all of that success so far?

Well, we’re taking a look back at the first half of the season for you. Earlier this week we took a look at our grades for the Badgers offense. Today, we take a look at the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive Line: A+

One of the biggest question marks coming in to the 2019 season was the UW defensive line. With no Olive Sagapolu and two starting defensive ends coming off of major injuries, how would this group look in 2019? Well, the answer is pretty damn good.

Bryson Williams, the starting nose guard, went down with a bad injury early in the season and in stepped true freshman Keannu Benton, who ripped off back-to-back performances that were rated No. 1 on the team by Pro Football Focus.

Isaiahh Loudermilk had a small injury early on and has been very good since his return, while Garrett Rand is doing work on the other side. Perhaps the biggest story is that this group has been disruptive in a major way.

We’ve had Matt Henningsen score a touchdown not once, but twice and the defensive linemen have racked up 3.0 sacks to date. Not too bad for a group of unproven, but talented players.

Linebackers: A+

Another big question mark coming in to the year was if the Badgers could get enough pressure from its linebacker group to make a difference in 2019. Last season was a dramatic drop off in sacks and tackles from loss as a team, but there has been no such issue in 2019. j

Zack Baun has been one of the best players in the country through the halfway point of the season. He’s put up 26 tackles, has one pick-six, 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks (tied for 8th nationally) through the first six games of the season.

It’s earned him Pro Football Focus mid-season first-team All-American honors. Considering he didn’t produce at nearly this level last season, it’s been a huge start for the senior.

On the opposite side of him, we’ve seen the combination of Izayah Green-May (missed time with a broken thumb) and Noah Burks become dangerous players in their own right. As a team, Wisconsin has put up 23 sacks through six games, which is more than they had in all of 2018 (19.0).

Jack Sanborn has been great and the pairing of him with Chris Orr has unleashed one of the most athletic and dangerous combinations of inside linebackers the Badgers have had since switching to the 3-4 defense when Gary Andersen arrived.

You could not draw up a more productive start to a season from a linebacker group if you tried.

Secondary: A

If you just go by the stats, it is hard to argue that Wisconsin isn’t playing some of its best ball against the pass that we’ve ever seen. I mean, they have allowed a Big Ten low three passing touchdowns and the team has eight overall interceptions, with two going for a defensive touchdown.

But, some of the stats can be misleading, especially those eight interceptions. The good news for the secondary is that five of the eight interceptions are attributed to the defensive backs, with starting safety Eric Burrell picking off a pair of passes.

It isn’t just the starting group that has held up well either. Wisconsin has had a next man up mentality and it has worked well. Colin Wilder and John Torchio stepped up when both Burell and fellow safety Reggie Pearson got tossed for hits to the head against Michigan.

Deron Harrell is credited with four pass breakups and Wilder with five to lead the secondary group in that category.

Overall, it’s hard to pick apart this group, but if there’s one area to watch it is their inconsistency in intermediate and deep balls. Luckily, most offenses don’t have enough time to set up a deep passing game so it hasn’t been much of a worry at all.

Overall: A+

Let’s just go over these stats given up by the Badgers defense once again:

4.8 points per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
44.6 rushing yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
129.0 passing yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
173.7 total yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally

In fact, Wisconsin’s 173.7 total yards per game given up is 60.3 yards per game better than the next best team — Ohio State — has given up this year.

Given all of that information, how could it not be an A+ so far this season? After all, Wisconsin is the first Big Ten team since the 1962 Minnesota Gophers team to pitch four shutouts in the first six games of a season.

Enough said.

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Badgers football

Badgers mid-season report card: Offense

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Believe it or not, but we have already reached the middle of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers football season. I know, it doesn’t seem possible because there seems to be so much football ahead.

You would be right, what with Ohio State, Iowa and Minnesota still looming large on the schedule and all.

But, as we want to look forward, we need to know the foundation that future has been built on. How have the Badgers faired so far in 2019? Let’s take a look position by position.

Offensive Line: A –

All seems to be rosy for the Badgers offensive line. They’ve given up a Big Ten-low of eight sacks and are the No. 2 rushing attack in the league, trailing only Ohio State. While you could say the Buckeyes have yet to face a real defense, they still are consistently putting up better numbers than Wisconsin has.

We’ll see if that holds up, but on the whole it is hard to argue that this group hasn’t been very good. They’ve dealt with a few injuries and haven’t really missed a beat for the most part.

If there’s one area that has put them from an A to an A- in my book, it is their performance in the run game against Northwestern and Michigan State at home. In both cases, Jonathan Taylor really struggled to get going and the offensive line found themselves back on their heels quite a bit. Thus, Taylor’s struggles.

Yes, both Northwestern and MSU are very good defensive fronts, but if you want to earn the top grades, you have to win more than they did up front against those two defensive lines. That’s especially worrisome when you see the defensive fronts that both Ohio State and Iowa can put out there.

This unit is very athletic and certainly can do some special things. But, it needs to be more consistent against high level defenses if the Badgers want to prove they belong in the College Football Playoff conversation. Not having a single member of this group on the Pro Football Focus mid-season All-American list tells me this group hasn’t been as good as potentially then can be by the end of the year.

Running Backs: B

Yes, Jonathan Taylor is a Pro Football Focus and everywhere else mid-season All-American and yes, he’s en route to break all sorts of historical marks, but there’s more to this group than Taylor and for that reason we have to give this group an overall grade of B.

In fact, if you were to take Taylor away from this position group, you would be far lower on the grade. Redshirt freshman Nakia Watson has picked up 53 carries for just 238 yards and is averaging 4.5 yards a carry. While that average isn’t bad, Watson hasn’t shown any flashes of being the next big star running back at Wisconsin with ample opportunities to do so.

Bradrick Shaw and Garrett Groshek haven’t been big factors in the Badgers run game either and Julius Davis appears headed for a complete redshirt. What happens if Taylor goes down? There hasn’t been anyone producing at a high enough level to give us confidence that it’ll just be “next man up” as we’ve seen year over year over year at UW since 1990.

John Chenal and Mason Stokke (pre-injury) have been very good fullbacks in the traditional Wisconsin mold, but they could be a bit better at their blocking technique and that will come with time on the field as both are younger options at fullback.

Overall, this group is doing well, I just downgrade for a lack of a second dynamic option at running back so far this year.

Tight Ends: B+

Much was expected out of junior tight end Jake Ferguson, so much so that many believed he would showcase himself and leave for the NFL after this season. After six games, I’m not so sure that is going to happen.

Yes, Ferguson is second on the team with 15 receptions, but he’s averaging 11 yards a catch and has just one touchdown to his name. Those numbers pace far behind last season.

There just seems to be something missing from the explosive player we saw in 2018, who caught 36 passes for over 450 yards and had four touchdowns to his name.

On the bright side, Ferguson has become a more reliable blocker and that could be the thing that gets him to the NFL a year early. We’ll see what happens the second half of the season though.

As for the rest of the group, it’s been hard to grade because injuries have piled up and not a single other tight end as caught a pass for the Badgers so far this season. So, when I look at Ferguson’s play, it’s hard to not give him a solid grade, but room for improvement and impact in the second half.

Wide Receivers: B-

There is no doubt that getting Quintez Cephus back in a Badgers uniform has been huge. But, with that said, this group has not produced the big plays we’d hope to see after a few years of experience for names like Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor.

Cephus is the only receiver with a touchdown to his name, albeit there have only been eight passing touchdowns on the season. However, the leading TD man is running back Jonathan Taylor, who has four already this year.

Pryor came up big against Michigan State and overall this group has produced well when given the opportunity. But, the inability to get separation and thus stretch the defense holds them back.

Maybe the coaching staff is also holding back what we see from this group, as by-in-large, UW hasn’t had to open up the full offense to win a game this season.

Quarterback: A –

Alright, it’s time for Badgers nation to eat some crow here. Everyone thought that Coan was the second-coming of Alex Hornibrook after his first efforts last season. But, through the first six games, Coan has been anything but the second-coming of Hornibrook. In fact, you could say he’s been the anti-Hornibrook.

He’s been clutch, he’s making the smart decisions and he’s keeping drives alive. Doing that at Wisconsin, with the best running back in college football, is exactly what is needed.

Coan is completing a ridiculous 76.3 percent of his passes, which leads the league and is second nationally only to Joe Burrow at LSU. Now, he has only thrown for 1,119 yards (8th in the B1G) and you could say that isn’t great, but consider how he’s become a complementary piece to the run game and you can see why his efficiency and clutch play matters more.

Additionally, his eight touchdowns to just one interception ratio is phenomenal. Ohio State’s Justin Fields is the only other starter in the Big Ten that has thrown just one pick through the halfway point of the season.

I wanted to give a higher grade, but Coan has struggled to hit the deep ball at times and seems most comfortable hitting the seven to 15-yard passes. That’s fine, but having someone to really stretch a defense out of eight-man boxes would be nice.

Maybe I’m nitpicking, but Coan has established himself as the rightful starter and put to bed most of the critics by becoming the go-to force in the win over Michigan State after a shaky couple of weeks against Michigan and Northwestern.

Having three multiple-touchdown games given what Jonathan Taylor is doing on the ground is impressive through six games.

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Badgers football

Defense leads Badgers to win over Northwestern

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It sure wasn’t pretty, but the Wisconsin Badgers took down reigning West division champions, the Northwestern Wildcats just the same.

UW’s defense came up big in the 24-15 victory. What happened, which players were the highlights and what needs to be worked on as the 4-0 Badgers go out of conference next week?

Our publisher, Andrew Coppens, comes to you with his full recap of UW’s win.

Don’t forget to subscribe, hit that notifications bell and you’ll never miss a single video the rest of the year!

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