Needing Aerial Efficiency

Ranking 90th in the country in passing through four games, Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave knows the Badgers' passing games need to start hitting the marks if it wants to beat high-caliber teams, especially No.4 Ohio State.

MADISON – Having the best seat in the house to watch Wisconsin's triad of tailbacks run, cut and weave their way to the end zone, quarterback Joel Stave can't help but acknowledge how Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement have eased some of the offense's burden.

On the same accord, Stave knows that it's hard to beat teams when the passing game can't consistency complete passes, especially on the road and against a defense like Ohio State.

"They're talented, physical and good athletes," said Stave of No.4 Ohio State's defense, which he and No.23 Wisconsin will face at Ohio Stadium Saturday night. "We're going to have to play good if we want to beat them and prepare well, too."

Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) is tops in the conference and third in the nation with 349.8 rushing yards through its first four games; numbers generated thanks to Gordon – who has rushed for at least 140 rushing yards in every game this season – leading the nation with 624 yards and an 11.8 per carry average.

The passing game has been a different story. Wisconsin ranks 90th in the country in passing offense (198.0 per game) and Stave has failed to throw for more than 220 yards in his four starts, surprising numbers considering the Badgers have given up only three sacks through four games.

"We need to improve in every aspect of our play," said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. "(We need) more pass completions, more consistency, repetitive accuracy needs to improve. He's doing a lot of things well but he needs to improve."

Winning a fall camp quarterback battle over sixth-year senior Curt Phillips, Stave, at times, has played better than a sophomore quarterback with only 10 career starts. He has a 202.9 passing efficiency in the red zone, going 14-for-17 for 87 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions this season, and Wisconsin is 8-2 in games he's started.

But at times he looks his age, failing to throw a touchdown pass in Wisconsin's 41-10 conference-opening win against Purdue and struggling to move the offense consistently.

And with three of Wisconsin's offense weapons – tight end Jacob Pedersen and receivers Jeff Duckworth and Kenzel Doe – questionable for this weekend, Stave is expecting the Buckeyes' defense to load the box to try and slow the Badgers' rushing attack.

"With how successful the running game has been, I can see why teams would want to do that," said Stave, who will try to become the first pocket-passing Wisconsin quarterback to win at Ohio Stadium since at least 1985.

"Whatever they give us, we've got to be ready for and execute. If they're going to bring safeties down and we have a chance to throw it over the top, that's what you want as a quarterback is an opportunity to throw the deep ball and make the big play."

While the deep ball was a big part of Wisconsin's offense in the season opener, it's been missing from Stave's arsenal over the last two weeks. Excluding screen passes, Wisconsin has completed only two passes over 25 yards while misfiring on several big-play opportunities; missed chances Stave has spent the better part of this week's prep work trying to correct.

"I just have to make sure my feet are right," said Stave, as Wisconsin has completed only two passes over 25 yards in the last two meetings against Ohio State. "When your feet are off, everything kind of goes. We worked on that some to make sure your feet are in the right position to make every throw you need to make.

But while Stave has drawn a lot of ire for his three interceptions through four games and inconsistencies moving the offense, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen came to his defense earlier this week, saying part of the blame was on the Badgers' receivers for not running the right routes with the right spacing or the right timing; a combination that led to an interception and eventually three points for Purdue.

"No one wants to talk about that," said Andersen. "They want to talk about how the quarterback threw a pick. There's things that go into it that many times are missed. The offensive line, we want to get better. We want to run better routes, cleaner routes, crisper routes. We want to make sure we put them in a position, as coaches, to be able to execute.

"Is the throwing game a concern? Yes. Is it alarming? I would say no, but it's a concern, and we want to get better because great running teams, if they have the ability to get those safeties to back off just a little bit, it really helps."

While Saturday will be just his 11th start, Stave does have road game experience in hostile environments. He led Wisconsin to a 27-10 second-half lead at Nebraska last season and threw for 120 yards on Wisconsin's final two drives at Arizona State, putting the Badgers in position to kick a game-tying field goal before the game's controversial ending.

"I don't know if we're trying to prove anything to anyone except ourselves," said Stave. "We know we can be a balanced offense and we can throw the ball and run the ball. As long as we're doing that, we're happy."

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