Every Wisconsin fan watching the game Saturday did a double take when No. 6 entered the game on the game-deciding drive with just under three minutes left in a Memorial Stadium growing louder with each snap. No, there was no way Danny O’Brien, the transfer savior-turned backup quarterback and clipboard manager could be back in the game.
The new starter, redshirt freshman Joel Stave, had just been knocked around on a grounding call that ended the Badgers’ penultimate drive, so maybe he was injured. Yet Stave said after the game he simply had the wind knocked out of him, that he was healthy enough to step back into play.
But as head coach Bret Bielema said after the 30-27 UW loss in the Big Ten opener, it was all part of the plan. The more experienced O’Brien, who started 17 games in two seasons at Maryland, was the man to lead the two-minute offense, to take control of the huddle on the most important snaps of the game.
Forget about the stab it might take at a young player’s confidence, one who shined in the first half of the game in a mind-numbingly loud Memorial Stadium Saturday. Stave was expectedly tight-lipped on the move to take him out late but said he was not so rattled that he could not have finished out his second career start.
“That’s not my call,” Stave said postgame. “He made the call, and I just [have] to live with it.”
He does have to live with it. But that certainly doesn’t make it the right call.
Bielema has been commended for his bold moves this season — first firing offensive line coach Mike Markuson and then benching O’Brien, the man many expected to flourish in Madison. But he simply can’t expect to win games, especially tough battles on the road (first case study: Lincoln Saturday night), with a different man running his game-deciding drives.
And it didn’t take long to show exactly why the strategy of snubbing Stave for the No. 2 quarterback won’t work. On fourth-and-1 from the Wisconsin 49, a miscommunication between O’Brien and running back Montee Ball led to a turnover that allowed the Huskers to escape a major upset at home.
While O’Brien believed the play called was a quarterback option, where he could either hand it off to Ball or run it himself depending on the defense he saw lining up across from him, Ball said it was a naked bootleg, a designed run for O’Brien.
The Badgers’ top tailback didn’t even realize he was getting the ball and subsequently fumbled. Ball wasn’t shy about hiding his frustration with the play after the loss, and O’Brien admirably took full blame for the critical slip-up. But he shouldn’t have even been in the game. He belonged on the sideline, helping guide his younger counterpart down the field.
The elder signal-caller looked comfortable as a pocket passer, moving the ball down the field with promising efficiency on a 36-yard drive before the fatal miscue near midfield. This is not an argument of who should start — strong cases can be made for both Stave and O’Brien — but rather for sticking the same man at quarterback, barring injury.
Yet Wisconsin’s head coach brought up an even more far-fetched idea in his postgame press conference — getting a third quarterback, mobile redshirt senior and two-time torn ACL victim Curt Phillips, involved. As if a two-man unit dictating plays in the huddle wasn’t enough.
“I think the positive thing is, we haven’t seen Curt yet,” Bielema said. “I think he’s got some abilities that can help us as well. So the good news is, I think we’ve got three quarterbacks that … can help us win football games.”
It’s as if he sees the most important position on the field as a place suited for a carousel of strong-armed athletes in cardinal and white uniforms. He professes his love for Stave, how impressed he is with the maturity of the 6-foot-5 passer, but then treats the position like it’s a spot on the Badgers’ kickoff coverage unit.
The golden-haired starter who last played on the road as a high school senior in 2010 handled a rabid Huskers crowd with tremendous poise, finishing the first half with 161 yards on 9-of-14 passing and a touchdown.
His productivity slowed down in the final 30 minutes as he attempted to thread the ball into gaps narrow enough to make Wisconsin fans cringe. Stave’s signs of inexperience included a dropped pass straight into the hands of a Nebraska’s linebacker Will Compton near the end of the first half and another near-interception later in the game.
But Stave had more than earned a lock on the starting spot, no matter what situation developed late. Those are the situations where head coaches display their confidence in the offensive leader, the worst time to send mixed messages to the quarterback.
“You want to be the guy in there with the two-minute drill, on the road, on national TV, to win the game,” O’Brien said. “Unfortunately that play just stopped, but I liked the momentum we had; I thought we were on the same page.”
The outcome may not have been different with Stave under center. But when Bielema chose him as the starting quarterback, he was making a long-term commitment, and he must honor it.
Stave earned the role of emerging as the potential hero, the architect of a game-winning drive in one of the toughest road environments Wisconsin has ever faced. But thanks to a misguided decision from his head coach, it was a dream that never had the chance to be realized.