They were in the same recruiting class together – both overlooked in-state players with something to prove to those schools who didn’t see their value – and they both put in an inordinate amount of time to try to make an impact on the football field.
And when both were given that chance early in their careers, they each leaned on one another to get through the tough situations. While their friendship was give and take, Arneson always felt he took more from Stave than vice versa with the way his quarterback never waved the white flag.
“He’ll be the most critical person of himself with the mistakes, but it speaks to his character and the kind of person that he is that he keeps moving forward,” said Arneson. “He keeps his head up, he steps up and he (makes) some huge plays, some huge throws when we needed him. I can’t say enough about Joel’s ability to run this team.”
The former Greenfield Whitnall athlete has been through his fair share of adversity. In five seasons, Stave has had three head coaches, four quarterback coaches and always appeared to be fighting for his job. He’s twice started the season on the bench only to emerge as the team’s full-time quarterback. He’s also had one season end prematurely because of a broken collarbone and another offseason derailed because of another shoulder injury suffered in a bowl game.
And if we’re really keeping score, he had a starting job he rightfully won not given to him, causing him to develop the throwing yips for over a month.
All that’s in the past now, especially with Stave 100 percent healthy and new head coach Paul Chryst firmly in his corner by naming him the starting quarterback.
“I felt good going into the offseason healthy,” said Stave. “I felt good and I’m ready to go again.”
After three years of having to start fighting for his job in the spring, Stave has emerged as a confident, capable signal caller for the Badgers, which have their 10th out of 15 spring practices tonight leading into the April 25 spring game.
Walking on to Wisconsin over an offer from Western Michigan, spending his 2011 redshirt season watching a graduate transfer quarterback named Russell Wilson rewrite the UW record books, Stave spent every camp – spring or fall – trying to be perfect in every drill he took.
He missed out on the job in 2012 to former Maryland quarterback Danny O’Brien, but took over the job at halftime of week three and started the next six games. He beat out sixth-year senior Curt Phillips in 2013 and threw for UW sophomore record 2,494 yards and 22 touchdown passes, second-most in UW history.
Stave felt he earned the right to start again last season, but former head coach Gary Andersen opted to go with the dual-threat option in Tanner McEvoy, a move that backfired because of McEvoy’s ineffectiveness and the mental block it created on Stave and his throwing mechanics.
When the offense was grinding to a halt after five weeks, Andersen put Stave back into the starting role, and while his 53.4 completion percent, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions look like significant steps backwards, Stave’s closing kick showed his mettle.
In UW’s six wins following its bye week against Maryland, Rutgers, Purdue, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota to clinch the inaugural Big Ten West Division title, Stave completed 64 of 103 passes (62.1 percent) for 855 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.
“Having the belief of everybody behind and knowing he’s the guy, there’s a sense of comfort that he can just come out here, work on his game and not worry about the other things,” said senior receiver Alex Erickson of Stave. “He’s had his ups and downs, but when we’ve needed him he’s made huge plays. That’s the type of guy Joel is.”
No game showed Stave’s mental strength more than Wisconsin’s 34-31 overtime win against Auburn in the Outback Bowl. After throwing three interceptions in an embarrassing 59-0 defeat to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, things clicked on the first drive with Stave going 3-for-3 with a 7-yard touchdown to tailback Corey Clement.
Things went horribly wrong after that. Two of UW’s final three first-half drives ended with interceptions. Same with the second drive of the second half. The running game took over, but when it came time for the passing game to step back up to the plate, Stave was there.
With Wisconsin down three with 2:55 to go, Stave completed a fourth-and-5 pass to Arneson for seven yards and a third-and-five pass to Kenzel Doe for 10 yards, putting UW in position for the tying field goal.
In overtime, his 14-yard pass to Troy Fumagalli on third-and-8 set up the game winning field goal.
“That’s what you play the game for,” said Stave. “Yeah it’s fun to go out and roll teams, but to be in a big situation where they just scored, we have three minutes on the clock and we need to score or we lose the game, that's what you play the game for. I had confidence in myself. I appreciate my team sticking with me and having confidence in me. I felt I needed to redeem myself after the first three quarters to give my team a chance to win.”
With McEvoy moving to safety this season, only junior Bart Houston (four career games) has any experience, while redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins and true freshman Alex Hornibrook and Austin Kafentzis work to keep up.
Stave is 21-7 as a starter, which gives him a win percentage that ranks third all-time among starting Wisconsin quarterbacks. He sits among the top seven in school history in passing yards, completion percentage, pass efficiency rating and touchdown passes. Now he feels he has the full support of the coaching staff, and the knowledge that he has delivered in big games.
“I think being able to win big games like that, and ultimately close games like that, is huge,” said Stave. “The way we held it down in Iowa, against Minnesota and against Auburn, to be able to finish some of these games that are close and can go either way with a win is exactly what we needed to do. We took a step in the right direction.”