As expected, Stave got the start his first since the Capital One Bowl and immediately led Wisconsin on a six-play, 80-yard drive by handing the ball off to Melvin Gordon five times, giving the Badgers their first touchdown on an opening drive since the opener against LSU.
Even though Stave went the first 11 offensive plays without a pass attempt, the Wisconsin offense seemed to click under the veteran, as Stave guided Wisconsin to six scoring drives in the game on the 12 offensive possessions that he played.
That left Tanner McEvoy, who started the first five games, the odd man out, as he got only one series Saturday.
“Going into it I just left it into (offensive coordinator) Andy (Ludwig)’s hands, and I know he was very comfortable with the scenario and with the situation as the game went,” said Andersen. “He believed it was best to continue with Joel and move ourselves down the field.”
During McEvoy’s one series in the second quarter, the junior went 3-for-4 for 24 yards and had one carry for 12 yards. He was able to help drive Wisconsin’s offense to Illinois 29-yard line before kicker Rafael Gaglianone missed a 47-yard field goal.
“When Tanner came in, he made some nice plays, got out of the pocket a couple of times,” said Andersen. “As we move forward, all I can really say about the quarterback scenario is it's important that our offense continues to grow and develop and both quarterbacks have an opportunity. In my opinion … we are best served if they have an opportunity to be involved at this point. And that's the direction we're headed.”
The timing of the switch was interesting considering Stave led Wisconsin on a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive to tie the game the previous offensive series. During that drive, Stave was able to go 4-for-6 for 44 yards before Gordon scored his second touchdown.
“Obviously as a competitor you want to play every play,” said Stave. “With that being said, I knew that we were going to try and get us both in there, and I just can’t let that affect me.”
When Stave returned for the final two drives of the half, the running game led the offense to a touchdown and a field goal to end the half, putting UW up 24-14.
Although Stave wasn’t heavily counted on with the Badgers rushing for 401 yards, he had a chance to ice the game in the fourth quarter after Illinois cut the lead to 17 points. In what has been a trend this season for Wisconsin under center, Stave missed two open passes, both intended for Alex Erickson, which allowed Illinois to climb back into the game.
“When you have opportunities to make plays down the field you have to make them and just be smart in your decisions and always be accurate, Stave said.
While completing a deep pass has been elusive for Wisconsin through six games, Andersen said Stave’s arm strength was able to re-open the running game in the second quarter.
“If you went back and you watched the film of where those safeties were stacked, how they’re playing and where they were in there, they were at six yards in the second quarter (and) it became tough sledding running the football,” Andersen said. “As soon as we were able to complete a couple on the underneath throws, get a couple third downs, take the top off it a couple times, it definitely softened them up and gave the ability for the run game to get opened up.”
Stave finished the game 7-for-14 for 73 yards and had a nice rhythm clicking with senior tight end Sam Arneson, who led Wisconsin with four catches for 48 yards.
“Joel and I were able to hook up on a couple of passes, which was good in some big moments, kind of got some things going a little bit in the first half when we were maybe sputtering a little on offense,” said Arneson. “(I’m) just trying to give Joel a good target and catch it when it comes in.”
Uncertain of how the distribution was going to take place between him and McEvoy, Stave said that he felt prepared despite the limited reps earlier in the week.
“I knew we both were going to play and I knew I just had to make sure I was ready,” Stave said. “I’m obviously not going to complain about the way it was split up for me, but I’m not sure what it’s going to be like at this point moving forward.”
With a handful of questions about how Wisconsin’s offense would function with two vastly different quarterbacks under center, the Badgers started tiptoeing in that direction and now have another bye week to figure out how to get the most out of its offense.
“I think we both do a lot of things really well, I think we’re both good players and I think (the two quarterback system is) something we can really expand on in the offense,” said Stave. “I think it’s a good time for the bye week right now because we can really practice it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and see where we can go from here.”