LINCOLN, Neb. — Joel Stave's most recent road game as a starting quarterback came in his final high school game for Whitnall in 2010 at Franklin in the first round of the WIAA Division 2 playoffs.
Whitnall was an eighth seed and predictably lost to the top seed 47-25.
Stave recalled windy conditions that made it difficult to throw passes, but he didn't remember it as a particularly tough place to play.
"I wouldn't guess as tough as the place we're going this week," Stave, now a redshirt freshman quarterback at the University of Wisconsin, said with a perfect deadpan delivery.
Stave, who has six quarters of college football game experience under his belt, makes his first road start Saturday night at No. 22 Nebraska (3-1).
Stave's football background is so limited, his best frame of reference for what awaits him Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, with a capacity of 81,091, might be the two performances he gave at the UW Athletic Department's annual Buckingham Awards. He played the piano and sang, "Drops of Jupiter," by Train, to gatherings of a few hundred people — mostly fellow student-athletes.
"It does kind of make you try and block out everybody else and just focus on what you're doing, regardless if you're playing football or you're singing in front of people," Stave said.
Stave has a pretty good idea of what awaits him Saturday night — the noise, the sheer intensity of the moment — having traveled to all of UW's games last season. During road night games at Michigan State and Ohio State, he soaked in the atmosphere, imagining what he might do if given the chance to play, while watching former UW quarterback Russell Wilson perform his magic.
"Seeing (Wilson) out there, it looks like a lot of fun," Stave said. "Obviously, it doesn't look easy with the crowd noise and everything, but you've just got to block that out and stay focused."
The Badgers (3-1) are pinning their hopes, as they begin pursuit of a third straight Big Ten Conference title, on a quarterback who has thrown 23 college passes and came to the school as a walk-on after receiving only one scholarship offer.
Perhaps a little innocence is a good thing. One thing UW coach Bret Bielema likes about Stave is he never seems to change, whether he was the backup to Danny O'Brien earlier in the season or preparing to make his first road start in an historic stadium.
"From what I've known of Joel over the last two years, every day's the same," Bielema said. "He kind of is Groundhog Day. He doesn't get up too high or get down too low.
"He also has that innocence to him, where something happens, it's kind of, 'Oh, OK, that happened, here we go.' I don't see that changing."
Teammates have picked up on the huddle during Stave's limited playing time. Bielema referenced a comment by junior center Travis Frederick after last week's 37-26 victory over UTEP.
"He said (Stave) was the same in the huddle when we were up by four, needing a score, as we were in the second quarter when things got rolling," Bielema said. "I think that's who Joel is."
Big arm means big plays
Maybe the biggest impact Stave made on the offense last week was re-introducing the deep pass to the offense. Getting junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis back helped after he missed the previous game with a concussion.
Stave and Abbrederis hooked up on completions of 60 and 47 yards, the latter for a touchdown. UW's running game also broke loose with four runs of 20-plus yards. That gave the Badgers six plays of 20-plus yards in the game, one more than they had in the first three games combined.
"I love throwing it deep," Stave said. "When you get back there off play action, turn around and see someone three yards past a guy downfield, (my) heart gets going, you really want to get it out there."
The issue against the Cornhuskers — who lead the Big Ten with 16 sacks and have a premier pass rusher in senior defensive end Eric Martin (3½ sacks) — will be giving Stave enough time to throw.
UW's offense has struggled at times picking up blitzes. One of the most predictable things about starting a freshman quarterback is opposing defensive coordinators will see how he handles the blitz.
Stave: Business as usual
As much as Stave has been dealing with over the past two weeks since being elevated to the starting job, he said his life has not changed appreciably.
"A few people have said, 'Hey, nice game,' or something, at church or in a discussion (group)," he said. "Nothing real big."
And how much would a win at Nebraska elevate his profile?
"I would guess a few smiles and stuff at home," he said. "Maybe my teachers would treat me pretty well."
Either way, Stave should learn something about himself Saturday night.
"As a competitor, I want to compete well every time I'm out there, regardless of how many people are there or what's going on outside of the game," he said. "I've just got to focus on what's going on on the field and what I have to do."