All hail Joel Stave, King of the Axe.
You might not appreciate the often-beleaguered Wisconsin quarterback, but that’s OK — neither do plenty of Badgers fans. He’s a former walk-on who had the good fortune to understudy Russell Wilson while a redshirt, and the bad fortune to follow the superstar as the starter, and he’s forever being reminded, even in his home stadium, that he doesn’t measure up to that lofty standard.
Even his coach, in an otherwise positive assessment of the senior quarterback’s career this week, added a caveat. “Certainly anyone that’s played that long,” coach Paul Chryst pointed out, “is going to have some moments where it didn’t go exactly how you’d hoped.”
Probably so. But he’s had an awful lot, the Gophers can attest, where it did — more than almost anyone else in Wisconsin history. Stave will take the final regular-season snaps of a remarkable career Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium: four years that included the second-most passing yards, completed passes and touchdown passes in Wisconsin history. He has quarterbacked the Badgers to victory 29 times in 36 career starts, just one fewer than Brooks Bollinger’s school-record 30 wins in 42 starts.
And Saturday’s border war could make him the Paul Bunyan of Wisconsin quarterbacks: Stave can become the first Badger ever to quarterback his team to possession of the legendary Axe in four consecutive seasons. Not that it would quiet many of the social-media scoffs and message-board sneers.
“People are going to choose to remember him however they want to,” Chryst said.
The Gophers will remember him mostly as the guy handing the ball to Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon, a game manager tasked primarily with keeping blunders to a minimum. Tracy Claeys game-planned the past three Wisconsin games as Gophers defensive coordinator and admits he didn’t spend hours scheming ways to thwart Stave.
“Listen, in the past, you have to concentrate on the running game. They’ve got a Heisman Trophy candidate in the backfield the last three years, I believe, so that’s where your attention goes,” said Claeys, now the Gophers coach. “You know you’re going to give up a few play-action passes.”
It’s a calculated risk that occasionally has bitten the Gophers.
“I know that some of the guys on defense joke around that he always has his best game against Minnesota,” shrugged Stave’s similarly oft-critiqued counterpart, Mitch Leidner.
Sure enough, Stave once victimized the Gophers with 448 yards, three touchdowns and only one interception, more than enough to … oh, wait. Those are his three-year totals against the Gophers. Yet he has celebrated with the Axe after all three games and only needs to win Saturday to join the Gophers’ Rickey Foggie as a four-time Axe winner.
Stave has persevered this season despite hearing fans call for junior Bart Houston or freshman D.J. Gillins to take over his job. But just as he has overcome shoulder injuries, concussions and temporary demotions to recapture his job every season, the senior has led the Badgers to a season not unlike his own career: mostly successful but with a healthy dose of might-have-beens.
The Badgers are 8-3, with respectable losses to No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Iowa and a controversial one last week to No. 17 Northwestern, in which officials ruled an apparent game-winning touchdown catch by Jazz Peavy in the final minute was bobbled. A sixth consecutive January bowl game is within reach, impressive considering Chryst is Wisconsin’s third coach in four seasons, following the defections of Bret Bielema to Arkansas and Gary Andersen to Oregon State.
They have done it with defense, mostly; the Badgers lead the nation in red-zone defense, having allowed scores from in close only 71.4 percent of the time and only seven touchdowns. They have done it without their normal battering-ram running game, having averaged only 138.2 yards on the ground, 11th best in the Big Ten. Northwestern held them to minus-26 yards on the ground last week.
Mostly, they have done it with Stave the Survivor, a decent game manager, a streaky passer and no threat as a runner. But a winner nevertheless.
“This style of offense that Paul has gone back to fits him a lot better than what Coach Andersen was doing, with all the quarterback runs,” Claeys said. “He manages the game much better from the pocket. So he’s played awfully well. It will be a challenge.”