Stein, who had look sharp when he subbed late in UofL's Oct. 24 loss at Cincinnati, got his first start under center due to injuries to starter Adam Froman and backup Justin Burke. The Trinity High School product responded by completing 20 of 39 passes for 232 yards with one interception to help UofL (3-5, 0-3 in the Big East) to its third win of the season.
"I knew I had it in me," Stein said. "I always knee that I could play at any level. This year I've been doing well in practice. I did pretty well in the spring and the coaches had trust in me to go out there and get a win and I'm thankful for the opportunity."
It's an opportunity that not many expected for Stein, who is generously listed as 5-foot-10, 185 pounds in the UofL media guide.
"First of all, thank God (because) Will is 5-9 (if not) he might be somewhere on full scholarship if not at Louisville," freshman running back Darius Ashley, who scored two touchdowns in the victory, said in the post-game press conference. "Everybody knows how talented Will is and he shows it in practice everyday. He is as big a competitor as anybody on this team. Everybody had full confidence in him and knew he'd go out in this game and perform well."
Stein performed very well as a senior for the Shamrocks, guiding them to the 2007 Kentucky High School Athletic Association Class 6-A state title while completing nearly 71 percent of his passes for 3,697 yards and a school-record 54 touchdowns. That's where UofL coach Steve Kragthorpe, whose son Brad was a freshman on that team, saw Stein play.
"I looked at a lot of schools," Stein said. "I looked at some Division III schools, some Division II, and I almost went to Dayton. Coach K came to a lot of my games as a senior because his son was a freshman. My dad contacted them, especially Greg Brohm to see if there were any walk-on spots available. I always wanted to play at this level and I didn't want to go to a smaller school. They've got the best facilities, the best coaches, and the best atmosphere. They allowed me the opportunity and I seized and jumped right on it."
Stein was afforded another opportunity Saturday with both Froman and Burke banged up. Kragthorpe praised Stein's play late in the loss to Cincinnati, when he completed 6 of 9 passes for 98 yards, at his weekly press conference last Monday. That set the stage for Stein's first start.
"He's a guy that's always prepared," Kragthorpe said. "He's a guy I've watched play for along time and he's a guy that performs well in practice. He did a good job for us today and he did everything we asked him to do. We didn't scale anything back. We were going to be aggressive and attack these guys and I thought Will did a good job with that. We knew he could do it and I knew he could do it. I had total confidence in him and I think the team had total confidence in him. That's just how he operates in practice and he's a very good practice player."
That practice didn't make Stein perfect against Arkansas State, but it did allow him to efficiently manage the game.
Although Stein went 2-for-6 on the Cards' first series it set the stage for the rest of the game, and opened up the field for UofL. Stein's first pass, a deep throw down the sideline to Doug Beaumont, fell incomplete. But two plays later, on third-and-5 from the Louisville 25 he connected with Beaumont for a first down. On the next play he hooked up with Trent Guy for a 9-yard game. Then on second-and-1 from his own 45 Stein lofted a perfect touch-pass down the right sideline to Ashley, who bobbled, then dropped what would have been a big-yardage play.
"If you look at what he did early in he game we were going to be aggressive and throw the ball down the field," Kragthorpe said. "We knew if he threw the ball down the field we had guys who could go get it. That was one of the things we felt like we were going to have to do early in the game because they're a pressure team with eight- and nine-man fronts when you get in two backs. We said we were going to take our shots down the field and see if he can hit them and if we can't then we'll at least loosen them up a little bit. Again, Will did a good job of managing the game. They brought a lot of variety with their different blitzes and he did a good job with his run audibles. He was well prepared and ready to play."
That drive fizzled, but Stein's second sizzled. He engineered an eight-play, 65-yard scoring drive for the Cards that gave them a 7-0 lead.
"I started getting comfortable on the second drive. On the first drive I felt really ready to go and once I completed the first pass I was fine," Stein said.
Stein completed two passes - 13 yards to Scott Long and 2 yards to Beaumont - and also rushed twice for 10 yards to set up Ashley's 26-yard TD run.
"He's a real leader, especially to be a redshirt freshman," Ashley said of Stein. "That can be intimidating to move seniors around who have been here for awhile, (but) he did a great job taking control and when he's in the huddle you wouldn't know he was a redshirt freshman."
Especially one who was starting his first game. And although it wasn't an error-free performance - he threw one pick and a trio of incompletions from the ASU 2 just before halftime (including one to Guy on fourth down) - it was still worth a passing grade.
"For my first college start it was pretty good," Stein said. "There were some things that I probably should've read differently and some throws that should've gone to different spots. That's football, you don't get all of them. Overall I think I did pretty good. I managed the running game pretty well and made some good checks. If I had to grade myself I'd give it a ‘B'."
Asked afterward if he would inquire to Kragthorpe about a scholarship Stein responded: "I want to play first and I'll ask for that later. I'm all about playing. If I'm allowed to start and not have a scholarship, then I'll pay to start, I don't care."