So many things changed for University of Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave on the first offensive play of the second half in the game against Michigan State last season.
Spartans defensive end William Gholston rolled to the inside, off a double team, falling on top of Stave for a sack and driving the quarterback’s left shoulder hard into the Camp Randall Stadium turf.
Stave, making his sixth start and coming off his best half of football, suffered a broken left collarbone. He played only play two more plays the rest of the season.
Ten months later, Stave, a sophomore, is back as the Badgers’ starting quarterback, having prevailed in a competitive preseason camp battle with senior Curt Phillips.
After working with the No. 1 offense all week, Stave will make his seventh start in Saturday's season opener against UMass at Camp Randall Stadium.
“I think I am a better quarterback than I was last year,'' Stave said. "I think I can be a better leader than I was last year. Just help this team.”
The temptation is to say Stave’s life would have been so much different, if not for that one play. But, really, how different would it be?
If Stave had finished the season as the starter, he’s not so sure the spring would have gone any differently. With a new offense and a new coaching staff — including offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in Andy Ludwig — the quarterback job likely still would have been thrown open.
While Stave would have had the benefit of more starts under his belt, he still would be adjusting to a new offense. After a slow start in the spring, he came on decisively during camp and emerged as a clear-cut winner.
“He’s made good progress,” Ludwig said. “He’s throwing the ball with a higher degree of accuracy. We refer to it as repetitive accuracy.
“He’s being more vocal, he still needs to up that in terms of talking to his teammates and being more communicative. He had a good camp.”
Stave has worked to get the ball out of his hands more quickly. Part of it was a mechanical adjustment, to quicken his release, but it mostly has to do with a comfort level in the offense.
“That tells you he’s gotten a ton of reps through the summer and fall camp,” Ludwig said.
Added Stave: “That’s something coach Ludwig has done a really good job of crystallizing, making sure immediately you know where you’re going after what you see (the defense). Once you see what you see, make a decision quick and get the ball out.”
The Badgers ranked 11th in the Big Ten Conference in third-down conversions last season at 35.6 percent. Some of that could be attributed to having the conference’s worst passing game, averaging 156.9 yards per game.
“We’ve got a great plan for third down, we’ve got great protections for third down,” Stave said. “I think that’s somewhere we can get a lot, lot better.”
Ludwig made third downs a focus of camp. Going against UW’s blitz-heavy defense made it even more challenging.
“A very competitive, very sophisticated third-down scheme,” Ludwig said of UW’s defense. “I think it’s really going to help us in the long run.”
Stave, who arrived on campus as an unheralded walk-on from Whitnall High School in Greenfield, acknowledged his life hasn’t changed much.
He still gets around campus on a 10-speed bicycle, but as an engineering student who spends most of his time in the buildings on the north edge of the stadium, he doesn’t have to go far.
“I moved into a new house, so it’s a little bit closer,” he said. “It’s not a big deal. I’m an engineering student, I’m here (near the stadium) all of the time. I don’t have a lot of places to go.”
Despite his familiar blonde locks, he still doesn’t get recognized much, except on the occasional Friday or Saturday night when he goes out.
Without confirming the obvious news that he’s starting, since it was not officially announced, Stave said he wouldn’t derive any more satisfaction from winning the job a second time. That’s even though he basically had to start over and was behind Phillips for most of the time.
"Getting the chance to play last year was really, I wouldn’t say a surprise, but going into the season not being a starter and coming out week four and starting that game, was something that was really special for me and something I’ll never forget," he said.
Regardless of how he got back to this point, Stave appears to be in a better position now to thrive in this role, given his obvious progress.
“I feel very confident leading this offense,” he said. “I think we’ve got a great plan going into Saturday. I think the guys we have around (me) can really make this offense successful.”