If there’s a football game on Joel Stave’s television package, there’s a good bet the Wisconsin quarterback will have the remote locked on to it.
Many football players are the same way, having an undying passion for the sport they dedicate their lives to, but Stave is different. Watching the chess match unfold, the creativity of the play calling and the skills of a defense, it’s an art form that Stave loves to watch unfold.
“I love the game more than anything,” he says. “I love going out in the backyard and just playing.”
The biggest leaps for players using come after their first year to their second year. Players have had a year to adjust to college life, the way a football program operates, the speed of the game and so many other variables that go unnoticed.
Stave is grateful for the things he learned as a true freshmen watching Russell Wilson every day but won’t deny that his biggest leaps have come in the last 12 months since Paul Chryst was named the head coach.
He’s too nice to admit it, but Stave’s numbers are in part to an inept running game forcing Wisconsin to pass the ball a large percentage of the time than it’s used to (UW has run 466 run plays to 390 pass plays) and the fact that he finally has a head coach/offensive coordinator who understand how to mentor and develop quarterbacks.
It’s why 2015 has been so memorable for Stave, who wraps up his Wisconsin career tonight against USC (8-5) in the Holiday Bowl at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium.
“I’ve grown a lot this year, just being in so many different situations than I have been in year’s past,” said Stave. “My first three years we had two Heisman candidates at running back and James White, who is also no slouch there. We’ve has some very consistent offensive lines and always had that running game that we could lean pretty heavily on. Obviously we were banged up on the offensive line and had running backs bounce around, so based off the situation I had to grow a little bit and do more to help the offense.
“That’s part of playing quarterback, to be in position to do a lot to help your team win. Going back to some of those games where we weren’t running the ball very effectively and we had to go to the pass game, guys were able to protect, get open down the field and move the ball effectively. That’s the fun of the game and fun of playing quarterback.”
Being a former walk-on, things have turned out pretty good for Stave, who only had a scholarship offer from Western Michigan when he walked on to Wisconsin. He’s turned that opportunity into 30 wins in 40 games and needs one more victory to surpass Brooks Bollinger as the school’s all-time winningest quarterback.
“It would be cool,” Stave said of winning No.31. “It shows the consistency of this team and how good we’ve been able to be the last four years. The quarterback is a product of the players around him. I’ve played with a lot of good players around me and played with a lot of good players and coaches. To be able to start as many games as I have and be able to win as many games as I have, it’d be cool to get one more.”
Stave’s took one class last semester – coastal engineering – to finish off his civil engineering degree. The lighter class workload afforded him time to grow under an offensive system he learned back in 2011 after Chryst recruited him from Whitnall (WI) High. He was named the starter right before spring camp, affording him to time to work on his mechanics and stretch his abilities without having to constantly look over his shoulder.
His teammates already had his back, considering how he’s remained a steady influence despite all the ups and downs he’s had to overcome throughout his career, but the fact that a coaching staff finally acknowledged that made for a smooth transition.
When it’s all said in done, Stave will likely end the season having set personal bests in yards per game, completions and total passing yards, all the while not completing a pass over 45 yards.
“I've enjoyed the year that I've been able to spend with him and appreciate his growth from when I was there and recruited him and was with him for his freshman year,” said Chryst. “He's certainly matured quite a bit as a player but probably more impressively as a person and how he's handled himself through the ups and downs of it.
“Joel is much like this team, and certainly the seniors. I really have enjoyed and appreciate the time spent with him. I always thought that the goal is you earn the right to play more games. You have your season, you earn the right to play more games, and we have earned the right not to just play a game but to play in a really great bowl game against a great opponent, and Joel and that group of seniors, that's a heck of a thing for them.”
While Stave doesn’t like to reflect on his legacy (“that’s for others to decide,” he says) or dwell on the negatives, he will admit that bad losses or poor plays pop into his mind that could have altered a season. He’s still bothered by the way the Northwestern game ended with Jazz Peavy’s non-catch and how he felt the Arizona State game in 2013 was taken away from him and his teammates.
In the same mindset, the team’s 23-21 win at Nebraska this October was one of his favorite wins because it came after a 10-6 loss to Iowa and showed the team’s resiliency and character.
“To be able to do what we did, and survive all the ups and downs, for us to be able to come out on top was pretty special,” said Stave.
Win or lose tonight, Stave will play in the East-West Shrine Game Jan.23 in St. Petersburg, Fla., with the goal of doing everything he can to attract the eyes of N.F.L. scouts and executives.
He won’t be discouraged –like most things - no matter what happens in the spring’s N.F.L. draft. After all, former UW quarterback Scott Tolzien wasn’t drafted and has craved off a five-year professional career and currently serves as Aaron Rodgers backup in Green Bay.
“He’s really a guy I look up to and really respect,” Stave said of Tolzien. “With the way he works and the position he’s put himself in after being an undrafted guy, he’s done well for himself. I’ll keep trying to play football and see if I get picked up by a team. I’ll go that route. Whenever football is done, I’ll go find a real job.”
Having completed just less than 60 percent of his career passes for 7.418 yards with 47 touchdowns and 37 interceptions, Stave’s numbers don’t jump off the page and are a point of contention for many UW fans, including a large portion of the fan base the criticize his every move.
He shrugs it off. All he cares about is helping Wisconsin win one more game; a game that would cap a beyond-successful career.
“He’s been through a lot throughout the five years he’s been here,” said redshirt junior quarterback Bart Houston, who has backed up Stave this season. “He puts in a lot of work into being prepared for every single game. He doesn’t do it for himself or for the stats. He does it for the guys around him and for the team’s success. That’s what makes him who he is.”