LINCOLN, Neb. - Faced in a do-or-die situation in the final minute, needing at least a field goal to escape with a season-saving win, the tension – or doubt - throughout the Wisconsin fan base was noticeable. It was unrecognizable in Joel Stave’s demeanor.
Having flushed his ugly performance against Iowa by Monday and shook off a sluggish first half by halftime, Wisconsin’s senior quarterback described being down one with 63 seconds remaining as “fun.”
No wonder his teammates speak so highly about him.
“Joel being Joel gave us confidence,” said tailback Dare Ogunbowale of his quarterback, who was a key catalyst in setting up Rafael Gaglianone’s game-winning field goal in Wisconsin’s 23-21 victory over Nebraska Saturday at Memorial Stadium. “His poise in the huddle was something special for us. It bounced off of him and came to us.”
Stave’s performance was the essence of clutch. In the fourth quarter, after his offense had been held without a touchdown on 22 of its last 23 drives, Stave directed drives of 84 (touchdown), 40 (field goal), 70 (missed field goal) and 42 yards (winning field goal) in the fourth quarter.
In said quarter, Stave threw for 132 yards on 8 of 14 passing. That 70-yard drive began at Wisconsin’s own 9 and the 42-yard drive came after UW’s defense spent all three of its timeouts stopping Nebraska’s running game.
“I knew we were going to get the ball back,” Stave said.
Surviving a collapsing pocket and a lot of hits through the first three quarters, Stave finished with 322 yards on 24 of 50 passing (48 percent) and averaged 16.3 yards per completion in the second half. It was the fourth time in school history UW attempted at least 50 passes in a game but the first time UW left as the victor, mainly because Stave played turnover free.
“We know what we are going to get with him,” said senior Alex Erickson, who led UW in catches (seven) and yards (113). “There’s a comfort level with that, and I think guys really respond to him. He’s got the command of the huddle. Guys trust what he’s doing back there. He’s our guy. We’re believing in him, he’s believing in us and it’s only going to get better.”
Stave was key in the first half, too. Breaking a 16 drive touchdown-less streak with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Troy Fumagalli, Stave went 7-for-9 for 73 yards on the 13-play, 77-yard drive covering 5:22 of the second quarter.
Third down had been a problem area all season, but Stave delivered two big passes to move the chains on the drive - a 16-yard completion to Jazz Peavy on third-and-15 and the touchdown pass on third-and goal from the 7.
He even converted on a fourth-and-2 with a 4-yard completion to Fumagalli, giving Wisconsin its first touchdown in over 90 minutes of game time.
“Nebraska's front is a good front, and I thought guys battled up front, certainly Joel,” said head coach Paul Chryst, as UW finished 5 of 16 on third down. “I thought he saw the field great today and everything didn't go our way, but he just kept playing and that was neat to see."
Make no mistake, Stave was fortunate in the first half to dodge a couple gift interceptions, passes that Iowa cornerback Desmond King gobbled up a week ago. In the end, it was sweet vindication. Stave made his first career start here in 2012, a 30-27 loss to the Huskers.
He wasn’t on the field to end that game because of a coach’s decision. Thankfully for a nervous fan base, history did not repeat.
“He didn’t flinch,” said Fumagalli. “Since he’s been the leader on our team on offense, the way he practices, it’s no surprise.”