He was having the game of his life.
Entering the locker room at halftime, then-redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave was on top of the world after guiding Wisconsin to an early 7-3 lead against Michigan State.
Completing pass after pass against the Spartans, Stave orchestrated a 90-yard drive deep into MSU territory partway through the second quarter, before capping the drive off with a 31-yard pass to tight end Jacob Pedersen for a touchdown.
Arguably his best half of the year, Stave could do no wrong, finishing the second quarter 9-for-11 on passing attempts for 127 yards.
Then disaster struck.
A hard hit in the third quarter by MSU defensive end William Gholston, resulting in a thee-yard sack, sent the freshman quarterback to the locker room, his season done with a broken collar bone.
On the mend for over two months, the 6-foot-5 Greenfield native would not return to the field again for the Badgers until the Rose Bowl Jan. 1, and even when he did make his return he was used sparingly — only appearing in one series in UW’s Rose Bowl loss against Stanford.
“When you’re not playing, you start to lose it a little bit,” Stave said. “Then the first couple snaps [you take in practice] things seem to be going fast, and then after watching film and getting a few plays [in], things start to slow down again.”
In his absence, fifth-year senior Curt Phillips filled in admirably for the injured Stave, helping guide the team to its third straight Rose Bowl appearance.
If that wasn’t enough, the addition of two new quarterbacks to the mix this offseason in freshman Bart Houston and junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy have given Stave further competition in his quest to reclaim his starting spot. Add in a brand new coaching staff, and it seems what was once an assured place in the starting 11 has now become a five-way quarterback competition for the starting job this fall.
“[Stave] is a young quarterback,” offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. “He did a nice job as a starting quarterback last year. He’s still got a lot of football to learn and he works hard at it, but there’s not a man in the room, not a man in the position that doesn’t have a lot of things to improve on.”
While his injury may have been the result of a bit of bad luck last fall, Stave has fully embraced the competition, looking at it as an opportunity to better himself as a player in the process.
“I’m just mostly concerned about what I’m doing,” Stave said. “I’m trying to improve myself to get better everyday, and as long as I’m improving constantly, then I’m happy.”
One advantage Stave may have over some of his competitors as the quarterback battle continues to heat up this spring is his ability to throw the long ball.
Last season, after taking over the starting job Sept. 22 in place of Danny O’Brien, Stave’s success on the field quickly became linked to his ability to find then-junior Jared Abbrederis open down the field.
In their six games together in 2012-13 with Stave as starter, Stave found Abbrederis for three touchdowns, including one touchdown pass for 59 yards.
By the end of practice Monday, less than a week into spring practices, it seems the quarterback-receiver pair had already reignited some of the chemistry they found just a year ago. Stave completed a long pass to Abbrederis during one drill — finding the wide receiver open for an easy touchdown.
“He can throw the ball really far,” Abbrederis said. “I love when he throws the ball and just lets me go get it.”
Stave also has experience on his side.
Heading into the fall, Stave is one of three quarterbacks with starting experience for the Badgers. The other two quarterbacks vying for the position have yet to make a start at the Division 1 level.
Still, he knows there is still plenty of room for improvement if he wants to regain the starting job, citing the need to master all nuances of the offense as his biggest area for improvement.
Whether or not Stave will be under center come Aug. 31 against Massachusetts may not be decided for months to come, but for now, the young quarterback is content to continue honing and fine-tuning his game, hungry for the chance to prove himself worthy of being Wisconsin’s go-to quarterback next fall.