IOWA CITY, Iowa - Joel Stave felt that in a critical situation he would have expected himself to be able to pick up a key third down with his arm. But with his legs? C’mon. No way.
“To say that I would have ran for a big third down on the last play of the game,” said Stave, holding back laughter. “I wouldn’t have put my money on it going into it.”
Had he done so, Stave would have been in for a big payday, as his 12-yard scramble – his longest since his redshirt freshman year – delivered the final nail in the coffin, as No.14 Wisconsin survived a late onslaught for a 26-24 victory over Iowa at Kinnick Stadium Saturday.
Desperately trying to hang on after Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) saw a 16-point lead twice cut to two in the final quarter, the Badgers needed to somehow bleed off the final 5:01 to escape with their third straight win in the series and win their first one possession game in over two years.
The game plan was simple early: give the ball to Melvin Gordon, which Wisconsin did on the first four players of the drive. Gordon’s first two carries went for six and five yards to move the chains, but consecutive negative-yard rushing plays left Wisconsin facing a third-and-8 at its own 38 with just over two minutes to go.
On a simple drop back pass, Stave’s first read – Kenzel Doe in the flat – was no good, forcing him to focus on senior tight end Sam Arneson as the second option. It was the same route structure that Stave hit Arneson on late in the second quarter on third-and-11, setting up a Gordon 6-yard touchdown before halftime.
This time Arneson was getting smothered and Stave saw the safety coming over for help defense.
“That’s not the situation where you want to give the safety the opportunity,” said Stave. “At that point I had been standing there awhile and knew I had to do something.”
That decision was to run, not the most appealing option considering the official stats had Stave running seven times on the season with a net result of minus-28 yards. Taking off and seeing cornerback Sean Draper closing in, Stave peaked to the sideline to see where the first down marker was. Figuring the two players would contact right at the marker, Stave put his head down, tried to dive over and hope for the best.
The result was a hit to the knee, but a first down and the ability for Wisconsin to run out the clock.
“I’ve been kind of practicing my sliding and stuff,” said Stave, referencing the Capital One Bowl injury last January when his decision not to slide caused an injury that knocked him out until summer, “and that was not the time to show my new sliding abilities.”
That was the last of two big plays Stave made for Wisconsin in the fourth quarter. With Wisconsin leading 19-17 and facing third-and-13 the previous drive, Stave stood in the pocket along enough on an Iowa blitz to float a pass to Gordon, who had beaten free safety Jordan Lomax, for a 35-yard gain that set up Gordon’s 23-yard touchdown run two plays later.
For the game, Stave was 4-for-5 for 67 yards and four first downs on third down.
“Those are huge moments,” said UW coach Gary Andersen. “We talk about having to make 10 plays to have a special season as you move forward or even have a chance to have a good season. Those are definitely going to be two of the ones at the end of the year that we were able to make.”
Gordon thought Stave would pitch the ball to when. When he saw his quarterback start to go for it, Gordon slipped trying to get in a position to block, leaving him as a spectator on a play he called “unbelievable.”
“It was really who wanted it more that last drive,” said Gordon. “Our guys kept it together…It showed how much he wanted it.”
It capped a tremendous afternoon for Stave, who completed a season-high 78.8 percent of his passes (11-for-14) for 139 yards and no turnovers.
“He was huge all day,” said Arneson, who couldn’t keep a straight face when he said Stave “under sells” his athleticism. “You can’t say enough about his play and the play of the guys the way they way stepped up on offense…It feels great to get that win.”