EVANSTON, Ill. - Seeing an offense continue to flounder, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen finally detached his cart from his hand-picked dual-threat quarterback in hopes of finally sparking the unit’s passing game.
But instead of finding an answer, Wisconsin now had more questions than ever.
No.17 Wisconsin’s 20-14 loss at Ryan Field Saturday in the Badgers’ Big Ten opener was the penalty for the Badgers’ failing to learn a lesson from last week’s 27-10 nonconference victory over South Florida; a game in which UW scored only three points in the first half and had offensive veterans Melvin Gordon and Rob Havenstein calling for accountability at halftime.
A week later, Andersen made the decision to remove a struggling Tanner McEvoy (4-for-10 for 24 yards and one interception) after four drives only yielded 120 yards of total offense. In his place, Andersen put in junior quarterback Joel Stave, who had spent the last five weeks off the depth chart while he struggled to regain his throwing mechanics and confidence.
“I just felt like we needed to find a spark on offense,” said Andersen. “That’s why we made the change. It wasn’t necessarily just the quarterback production it was the offense as a whole.”
Even though Stave generated a touchdown drive for Wisconsin to begin the second half, cutting the Northwestern’s lead to 10-7, the offense started to fizzle after that drive. The remaining six drives by Stave resulted in three interceptions, a missed field goal, a punt and a touchdown that gave Wisconsin false hope late in the game.
Stave finished the game 8-for-19 for 114 yards and three crippling interceptions, but Andersen feel comfortable making the move following Stave’s improvement over the past two weeks.
“I looked at Joel and I asked Joel if he was ready to go,” Andersen said. “Like I’ve told you guys all week long, this was the week that he felt he was ready to go and I believed it.”
On the sidelines since suffering a shoulder injury in January’s Capital One Bowl, Stave said he felt comfortable on the field despite the limited practice reps.
“Obviously you can take as many practice reps as you want but it’s different in the game though,” Stave said. “You’re getting hit; it’s live; it’s a game; it’s different but I felt good, I felt confident (and) I felt basically ready to go. I just prepared the same way I would any week. I felt good when I got the shot.”
Stave’s two touchdown drives were buried behind his three interceptions, none of which were costlier than his one on first-and-goal from the Northwestern 3. Admitting he tried to force the pass to try and cut the lead to 20-14 with 5:55 remaining, Stave ended up throwing the ball right to Godwin Igwebuike, one of three interceptions in the game for the defensive end.
“That was a bad decision on my part,” Stave said. “I saw Alex kind of breaking away from his guy. A guy in the window and a guy right in my face on first-and-3 from the 3-yard line, you have to just throw that away and live to play another down.”
So where does Wisconsin go from here? For starters the Badgers need to figure out how to best utilize their two quarterbacks. Andersen didn’t name a starter, instead saying the offense UW ideally wants to run might not be sustainable with the personnel the Badgers currently have.
“We have to look and see what the functionality of our offense, what is the absolute best offense that fits the offensive line, the wide receivers, the tight ends, the fullback and everybody that’s involved,” Andersen said. “They’re both going to turn around and get reps and will see how that progresses.”
Echoing what he said earlier in the season, Andersen said he is open to using both quarterbacks within the offense, with Stave as the starter because of his passing abilities and ability to throw the football downfield and McEvoy as a change-of-pace option who can extend the pocket, scramble for yards or run the option.
“I don't care about yards,” said Andersen. “I don't care about all the other stuff other than a functioning offense that allows us to win Big Ten games. The game changes when you walk into the Big Ten. We all know that and we understand that.
“So if that means we have to adapt the offensive system and the scheme this year to help ourselves, as a football team, to have both of those schemes I'm talking about...because we are different than a year ago.
“We've got to get better at it."