Something to build from

Stocco, Horton find areas for improvement, pride in quarterback's first year as UW's starter

TAMPA, Fla. — When John Stocco looks back on his first season as the University of Wisconsin's starting quarterback he sees a mixed bag.

"I think I played OK," he said. "I know I can play a lot better. I know I'm nowhere near as good as I can be. That's kind of motivation for me. I've done some good things. I've been up, I've been down. It's just more experience for me and I think the more experience I get, the more it's going to help me."

Stocco, a sophomore from Richfield, Minn., completed 53.4 percent of his passes this season for 1,829 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. He will add another game to this season Saturday, when the Badgers (9-2) take on Georgia (9-2) in the Outback Bowl here.

"You want to look back on the things you did well and try and understand why you did that well and just continue to do that and get a little bit better with it," Stocco said. "Just carry it into this game."

What did Stocco do well? He was a steadying influence; a confident, composed leader on a team of seniors. His play was crucial in two major positive developments in Wisconsin's offense. He was integral in drastically reducing the number of sacks allowed, from 37 last year to 15 this season. Also, running backs and tight ends were more involved in the passing game, catching 65 passes.

"I thought he saw that picture," quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton said. "He did a good job understanding protection, knowing when to get rid of the ball."

Most importantly, with few exceptions Stocco played progressively better through the season's first nine games.

"I really thought his game management for the whole year was very good," Horton said. "Really for the most part until the last game protected the ball very well. Still single digits in interceptions, which is very positive.

"We need to be better at getting the ball downfield. We need to still continue to understand the concepts of the passing game and get a higher percentage….I'd still like to see that figure around 60 [percent]."

The Badgers started 9-0 with Stocco at the helm, but the young quarterback, and Wisconsin in general, faltered in the last two games, struggling immensely in crushing losses at Michigan State (49-14) and Iowa (30-7). With a win in either one of those games, Wisconsin would be playing in the Rose Bowl New Year's Day.

Stocco completed 20 of 38 passes for 178 yards against the Spartans, with just 4.7 yards per pass. At Iowa a week later, Stocco threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles, completing 18 of 38 passes for 145 yards, a miserly 3.8 yards per pass.

In fairness, Stocco was just one of many players who struggled in those games. And to his credit, he did not hang his head after those losses.

"He's a guy that doesn't get flustered," Horton said. "Things are going bad, he doesn't pout around or mope around….In that position the body language and your temperament on the field, off the field, on the sidelines—those are big keys."

Stocco's competitive drive and his even-keeled manner quickly endeared him to his teammates, a group that included 12 senior starters, five on his side of the ball.

"A tremendous leader," junior wide receiver Brandon Williams said. "I'm looking forward to playing with him again in this bowl game and next season as well."

Stocco's 2004 campaign began this time last year. After the Badgers lost to Auburn in the Music City Bowl, Stocco dedicated himself to offseason workouts. Impressing his teammates with his competitive spirit in those training sessions, he effectively won what was expected to be a wide open competition before the first snap of spring practice.

"He's not a big rah-rah guy," Horton said.

But he got his teammates' attention throughout the year.

"I think he's developed real well," senior receiver Darrin Charles said. "I think this season will be a heck of a building block for him as a whole."

Statistically, Stocco did not get off to a blistering start. Through five games he was the lowest rated passer in the Big Ten, having completed 55 of 115 passes for 660 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. Yet, aside from two second-half interceptions against Penn State, Stocco showed marked improvement game after game.

He led two fourth-quarter scoring drives at Arizona as the Badgers eked out a 9-7 win Sept. 18. Stocco also helped spur the offense to a 16-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that clinched an 18-3 win over UNLV a week earlier.

Stocco took a starring role in wins at Ohio State (24-13) and Purdue (20-17), completing 32 of 56 passes for 371 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in those games.

"I thought he really handled himself very well, competed, won some big games for us with some big plays," Horton said.

Stocco's best game, though, came in the Badgers 38-14 trouncing of Minnesota, with season highs in completion percentage (.731) and passing yards (297). He threw for one touchdown and ran for two more, earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week kudos for the effort.

"I got into a rhythm early on with moving the chains," Stocco said. "I think if you can do that….first drive just get a few completions….I think that really helps you throughout the game."

Two disappointing games followed but Stocco has long since put those outings in the past.

"Right now I'm just worried about this game and playing my best football," Stocco said. "I know I can play a lot better and I think this game is going to be that first step for me carrying it into the offseason."

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