It was almost as if everyone was in denial. As Joel Stave collapsed on the field, rabid fans in the student section and reporters in the press box alike needed a minute to digest the situation.
We knew Stave had been driven into the ground by the beast known as William Gholston, but he quickly jumped back to his feet. By the time the Wisconsin medical staff surrounded him, I continued to scan the group of surrounding players, convinced it was not No. 2, not the player in the midst of his best performance in a Badger uniform, resting on his knees, his face wincing in obvious pain.
Melodramatics aside, the man down was indeed the redshirt freshman, the one who spent the first half Saturday making some of the most acute, difficult throws of his young career against a defense loaded with agility and power. He had only one touchdown pass to that point but looked poised for another scoring drive to open the third quarter and help the Badgers defeat the much-despised Spartans at Camp Randall.
Even as Wisconsin held onto its 7-3, then 10-3, lead into the final minutes of the fourth quarter, when Stave checked out, so did the Badgers’ offense. After flattening defenders for three-straight games, the Spartans’ defense stymied running back Montee Ball at the line of scrimmage on almost every run play. After blowing apart defenses with his game-breaking runs, James White’s longest run (seven yards) wasn’t even enough for a first down.
Yet the promising arm of Stave – though certainly full of its own set of frustrating miscues this season – finally seemed to be finding holes in the secondary. With just two of his 11 passes falling for incompletions, it looked to be the coming out moment for Stave, a turning point in his season. Maybe, just maybe, he was developing into the potential four-year starter Badger fans envisioned.
And it all ended right there – not just for the game, but for the season. When Danny O’Brien, the once-heralded transfer from Maryland turned head clipboard manager, entered the game for UW, the wheels came flying off the offense. The redshirt junior Madison’s finest welcomed with open arms, who would start all but three games in Madison before Stave took over, looked even more befuddled than he did against the Oregon State defense Sept. 8.
His first series ended with a sack that cost Wisconsin 13 yards and handed the home squad a hopeless 4th-and-28. O’Brien didn’t even cross into Spartans’ territory in nearly two full quarters of play. The closest he came to adding to the scoreboard was the Wisconsin 47-yard line. Though not entirely his fault, Michigan State sacked the new man under center three times for a total loss of 32 yards.
On the final play of regulation, Michigan State tore down the opening-day starter in the backfield for a loss of 13 yards as the clock expired, a play representative of O’Brien’s time in the pocket Saturday. It was nothing less than painful to watch, as the skepticism expressed by UW fans toward O’Brien became, once again, entirely justified. Because at this point in the year, after a more-than-worrisome return to quarterback, D.O.B must earn such trust – not only of fans, but of his own coaching staff.
Head coach Bret Bielema made it clear at his Monday press conference that fifth-year senior and three-time ACL-tear victim Curt Phillips could earn the starting nod at Indiana in two weeks. And rightfully so. Though once painted as the quarterback savior with one-and-done legend Russell Wilson heading for the NFL, O’Brien’s play has only declined as the season has progressed.
I can already hear the whispers of me as an eternal pessimist (a claim that is largely accurate), but let’s turn to the statistics to grade O’Brien’s performance this year.
In 12 quarters under center this season – including his first start against FCS opponent Northern Iowa – he has thrown for all of three touchdowns, 523 yards and an interception.
Not to mention his two fumbles in the first half against Utah State, one of which he lost inside the Wisconsin red zone. That turnover would lead to an Aggies touchdown before Bielema finally yanked him in favor of the unproven freshman. Remember, the fumble that put the Badgers behind 14-3 heading into the half before the offense remembered how to play college football?
O’Brien still appears to have the step up in the second go-round of the Wisconsin quarterback carousel this year, and he will likely earn the start in Bloomington, Ind., two Saturdays from now. He will have more to prove than simply being the better option than Phillips – he must prove he can be more than a constant liability when he takes a snap from center Travis Frederick.
When Stave went down Saturday, there was a reason we couldn’t believe it. It’s nothing less than painful to watch a young, steadily developing quarterback go down with injury against a heated Big Ten rival in a game that for all of the first half lived up to its billing as a grind-it-out defensive battle.
Now, their roles are reversed. It’s O’Brien’s time to show he can keep pace with his younger counterpart. As the Wisconsin quarterback, he has two primary jobs: Don’t turn the ball over, and convert the play-action pass. How well he plays that role of glorified game manager will determine where UW finds itself come bowl season.