There was plenty for University of Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada to be encouraged about after redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave’s first start on Saturday.
Stave, the first freshman to start at quarterback for the Badgers since Jim Sorgi in 2000, made several big plays in UW’s 37-26 victory over UTEP at Camp Randall Stadium.
Helped by the return of junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who had missed six quarters over two games following a concussion, the Badgers rediscovered the big play in their offense.
Stave completed only 12 passes in 17 attempts, but he threw for 210 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. His pass efficiency rating of 182.0 was fifth-best by a UW quarterback in his first start.
The 60-yard hookup with Abbrederis in the second quarter was UW’s longest play of the season and longest in 11 games.
The average of 12.4 yards per pass attempt followed averages of 4.5 against Oregon State two weeks earlier and 4.9 the previous week against Utah State.
But it was Stave’s 14-yard check-down pass to tailback James White during a crucial final touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that may have been the best sign of Stave’s future.
After UTEP pulled within 23-19 on a field goal with 7 minutes, 59 seconds to play, Stave went 4-for-4 on a 75-yard drive that ended in a 2-yard touchdown run by White.
“That was a big drive,” Canada said on Sunday. “Things got a little tight there and you take it all of the way down the field, I thought he stepped up.”
It was the play on second-and-8 at the UW 41 that was perhaps the best example of Stave’s feel for the position at a young age.
Abbrederis was running a vertical route down the field and the safety on the play side — who was Stave’s read — was where the Badgers wanted him, near the line of scrimmage.
As Stave reared back to fire a deep pass to Abbrederis, he saw the safety on the back side make a heads-up play and help out on Abbrederis. Stave abruptly stopped his motion and dumped the ball off to White.
“That’s one of those little things people probably don’t see,” Canada said. “For a guy who’s just getting going, (Stave) saw it, readjusted and got it to James. ... That was a huge play, in my mind, as far as where he’s (at).”
Canada didn’t go overboard in his praise of Stave’s performance, saying there was plenty of good and bad.
The interception led to a UTEP field goal just before halftime and gave the Miners hope going into the second half. Canada said Stave didn’t see cornerback Drew Thomas, who was squatting at the first-down marker on third-and-11.
The same cornerback was overly aggressive on the previous series and stumbled, leaving Abbrederis alone for a 47-yard touchdown pass.
“The (cornerback) took a risk, “ Canada said. “It paid off for him. ... By no means am I minimizing our fault in that. I think some of that falls all the way around, Joel’s got to see him, we’ve got to try and do a better job of putting him in a (better play).”
Stave was able to throw some nice deep passes off play-action, in part because the running game finished with a season-high 213 yards. That made the fakes more effective. The return of Abbrederis was also huge.
It was the most productive the offense has been in four non-conference games, finishing with a season-high 423 yards, but still not where Canada expects it to be.
The same could be said of Stave, who showed both promise and how much work he still needs to do.
Still, after mostly floundering on offense for three weeks, this was a much-needed confidence boost for the entire offense.
“I think you can see that,” Canada said. “When you get a couple drives going, you start to play better and feel better. When you’re running good, you can throw it. When you’re throwing good you can run it. Everything complements each other.”
From the infirmary
Running backs coach Thomas Hammock had no update on the status of running back Montee Ball, who suffered an apparent concussion on a 1-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. Hammock said UW coach Bret Bielema would handle any medical update on Ball.
• Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, who was missing three of his top four defensive ends for a long stretch of the game, said junior defensive end David Gilbert suffered a toe injury and could be ready to play this week at Nebraska.
“We feel good about the odds of him being back,” Partridge said.
• A fourth defensive end, Tyler Dippel, was leg-whipped late in the game but only suffered a bruise. He is also expected to play this week.
• Two other defensive ends missed the entire game, Brendan Kelly (hamstring) and Pat Muldoon (broken hand).
Kelly has missed two of the last three games. He aggravated the injury late in the game against Utah State and did little at practice last week. Muldoon has missed two games since breaking his hand and it sounded like he probably wouldn’t be ready this week.
“Kelly’s a little more hard to judge,” Partridge said. “Hamstrings, as you know, some of them linger. Some of them come back quick. I don’t know that Muldoon will be back. Hopefully, we’ll be surprised by one or two of them.”