Joel Stave’s second start with the University of Wisconsin football team last season came on the road at Nebraska and contained one of the great measuring sticks for a quarterback.
The Badgers, who led most of the game, trailed 30-27 late in the fourth quarter but still had plenty of time for a final drive, taking over at their 10-yard line with 2 minutes, 55 seconds remaining.
Those are the moments that can define a quarterback’s career. But former UW coach Bret Bielema sent Danny O’Brien — who had been replaced as the starter the previous week — into the game at quarterback for the final drive.
While Stave left the game for one play after a hard hit on the previous series, he was capable of returning. But the decision to take Stave out and go with O’Brien in a 2-minute drill, Bielema said afterward, was made prior to the game because of better production in practice in those situations.
“I did get smoked pretty good that previous drive,” Stave said Monday. “But I felt like I was OK to do it. It obviously wasn’t my call. I believe previously in that week, we hadn’t been as successful as we’d like to be in a 2-minute drive. That’s (Bielema’s) call.”
It’s a cold slap in the face for a quarterback to battle all game in a tough environment and then be told you are not good enough to try to win it at the end.
“I’m always trying to worry about what I can control,” Stave said. “That’s (the coaches’) decision, who they want to play.”
Stave had to wait until the 48-0 victory over Tennessee Tech on Saturday — his eighth start — to finally get a chance to run the 2-minute offense in a game.
While it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as a potential game-winning situation in the closing minutes, the 11-play, 94-yard touchdown drive, which used up 1:30 on the clock, could turn out to be an important step in Stave’s development.
“I think that’s not only good for me but good for the whole offense,” Stave said.
As recently as preseason camp, some people regarded sixth-year senior Curt Phillips as being the best 2-minute quarterback on the team. Phillips produced game-tying drives in the final seconds of back-to-back games last season, only to lose both in overtime — against Ohio State and Penn State.
Phillips also was usually more effective in those situations in camp.
“I thought Curt did a good job in the games he had with the 2-minute offense,” Stave said. “He’s a good player, he’s a good competitor. I thought that was something he did pretty well, too.”
Stave looked so poised and confident, completing all 10 pass attempts on the drive, nobody would have guessed he was doing it for the first time in a college game.
“It just felt comfortable,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “I don’t know really how to explain that as a coach but there are times, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams, you just feel comfortable and confident that you’re doing the right things and the kids have an opportunity to excel.”
Stave said the keys in the 2-minute drill are making quick decisions, getting the ball out quickly and never taking a sack.
“Like all of the coaches always say, you can’t take a sack,” he said. “That kills a drive because it keeps the clock running and you’re moving in the wrong direction. You always want to make sure you’re having a positive play, whether it’s a check-down or a little hitch, whatever it is, just moving in the right direction.”
UW offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig devoted significant time to the 2-minute drill in camp. Sometimes, it was run like a normal 2-minute situation, where the clock ran and the result of the play dictated where the ball was placed.
Other times, the offense just worked at getting plays off quickly and the ball moved 10 yards down the field, regardless of the play’s outcome.
“So people get the feel of the pace of it,” Stave said. “… I felt everyone offensively was pretty prepared for when we were tackled, second-and-2, whatever it was and the clock was continuing to run, that we’d be able to get a pretty clean play off.”
Stave ran seven plays before having to call the first timeout, which came at the Tennessee Tech 26 with 44 seconds left. Five times the clock stopped for first downs to move the chains.
He was able to stop the clock twice with receivers getting out of bounds.
He used a second timeout with 31 seconds left, from the Tech 10, and the third from the 6 with :23 remaining. The touchdown pass to tight end Brian Wozniak on the next play finished off the textbook drive with 19 seconds to spare.
“Two-minute drives can be difficult to do on air (no defenders) and we did it well last Saturday,” senior linebacker Chris Borland said. “That was good momentum going into the half and our offense got the ball back coming out, so that was good for us. It’s fun to watch on the sidelines.”
Stave will surely face more difficult 2-minute scenarios — at the end of games and against tougher defenses. But this was a big step for someone who wasn’t even given a chance in that situation a year ago.
“He was into the moment, he was getting rid of the ball on time, which was impressive to see,” Andersen said. “The offensive line was giving him the time he needed, but it was clear and concise and there was no panic, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get a 30-yard chunk here or make something big happen.’
“We just got ourselves down the field and got 30 yards into it and still had all of our timeouts, we were moving ahead pretty cleanly.”