On a rare sunny day this April, the Wisconsin football team capped off its spring season with its annual Spring Game at Camp Randall Saturday.
Following a different format than in years past, the offense, team “White,” lost to the defense, team “Cardinal,” 61-47 after a second-half collapse saw the offense score just five points in the final 20 minutes.
With many of the key players sitting out for the offense – including seniors James White, Jared Abbrederis and Ryan Groy – in order to prevent injury, the attention turned to the one position that had all five of its candidates participating: quarterback.
Starting for the offense on the first drive, sixth-year senior Curt Phillips led the team on a 10-play, 50-yard drive that resulted in a Kyle French field goal.
However, redshirt sophomore Joel Stave quickly stole the show when he took over at quarterback on the offense’s third drive.
Trailing the defense 12-7, Stave orchestrated a 71-yard drive, throwing for four first downs along the way before sophomore running back Melvin Gordon finished the drive off with an 11-yard touchdown run.
For Stave, a strong final practice seemed the perfect way to end his first spring season under new head coach Gary Andersen.
“I think I’ve made a pretty good impression,” Stave said. “Just trying to compete and trying to make sure I’m learning everything that they are giving me because they threw a lot of stuff at us this week offensively.”
By the end the game, Stave had accumulated 161 passing yards on 15-of-20 passing and had the offense’s only throwing score of the game.
While Andersen was reluctant to say that Stave had taken the lead in the quarterback contest, he did say that the young signal caller had his best practice of the spring Saturday.
“Joel was poised today,” Andersen said. “I thought he wasn’t perfect, but he doesn’t have to be perfect. … We did throw the ball and catch the ball better than we have all spring and that was very encouraging.”
None of the other quarterbacks received much of a shot at the job Saturday, with just a combined nine passing attempts between Danny O’Brien, Bart Houston and Chase Knox. Just two of those passes were completed for a grand total of seven yards.
Lessening the burden on Wisconsin’s passing game, Gordon took 17 carries and averaged 4.4 yards per attempt but also provided a reliable receiving option, catching four passes for 39 yards.
Despite suffering from ankle problems throughout the early part of the spring season, Gordon would manage to rush for 74 yards and a touchdown – a far cry from his first spring game last year where the young running back accumulated 159 yards and one touchdown on 30 carries.
“The tweak of the ankle through spring slowed him down, but it didn’t slow him down mentally,” Andersen said. “It really was impressive to me because the day he came back, he was in the offense, he knew the offense … which is a credit to him.”
Doe catches attention at wide receiver
In the absence of star wide receiver Abbrederis, the Wisconsin quarterbacks had to search for a new go-to option in the passing game Saturday. Junior wide receiver Kenzel Doe quickly stepped up to the task – something his teammates say they have witnessed all spring.
“He was very impressive today,” Phillips said. “He is one guy that I think we have seen throughout the spring make strides.
“I think having the confidence now that he has been out there and [making] some plays will allow him the opportunity to improve himself.”
Doe made play after play for the offense – catching seven first-down passes in four quarters – on his way to eight catches for 93 yards on the day.
Entering the game, the quest for a No. 2 wide receiver was one of the big question marks for Wisconsin, but after the spring game Andersen admitted the wide receiver question may now have solved itself.
“Kenzel’s want-to is very impressive,” Anderson said. “He is crafty and … has really showed solid hands throughout practice. Whether it’s route versus error, or a competitive situation, he’s done a very nice job.”
Although Doe was electric catching the short passes and even running an end-around that featured some shifty moves, the Badgers sorely lacked any deep-ball potency in their passing game. Without Abbrederis’ presence on the field, the Badgers didn’t take many shots down the field.
Stave was the only quarterback to heave up the long ball out of all five players Saturday, overthrowing one attempt and leading his receiver a bit too far to the middle of the field on the other.