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MADISON - For the second straight week, Wisconsin’s offense is undergoing a major change in hopes of boosting its performance.
After switching quarterbacks at halftime of its 16-14 victory over Utah State, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema decided that redshirt freshman Joel Stave’s performance – no turnovers, snap exchanges, incorrect calls or any major problems – deserved a chance to start this Saturday when Wisconsin hosts UTEP at 11 a.m.
“He didn’t show me any reason not to stay with him.” Bielema said Thursday of Stave. “When I said we were going to make a move at halftime no one batted an eye. Everyone just jumped in full speed ahead. I think all week they have been worrying about their own business, not who’s the quarterback.”
A quarterback competition in the season was the last thing on people’s minds after fall camp. With all three quarterbacks having similar completion percentages throughout the competition, according to the coaching staff, Wisconsin named junior Danny O’Brienthe starter based on the fact that he didn’t turn carelessly turn the ball over.
O’Brien led Wisconsin to a five-point win in the opener after completing 19 of 23 passes for two touchdown and no turnovers, but committed three crucial turnovers in the last two games. After a late second-quarter fumble led to a Utah State touchdown, Bielema made the switch in the locker room.
“When we went in after half time, the number one thing was ball security,” Bielema said. “I told [Joel] that, I told all of them that when the decision was made. I think it has resonated within our entire team, and there has been a huge emphasis on it. We just can’t play winning football if we turn the ball over as much as we were.”
Bielema acknowledged that O’Brien and senior Curt Phillips are both talented quarterbacks, but Stave is the solution for the Badgers right now.
“We will continue with Joel to start,” Bielema said. “I think the part I’ve been really impressed with is that Danny has been great - probably practiced as hard as anybody on Tuesday and Wednesday. It was exciting to see that. Curt has also popped in there and has done some great things. I think every one of them, like I said during fall camp and where we are today, all three of them could play.”
O’Brien completed 5 of 10 passes for 63 yards, no touchdowns and the turnover in the first half. Stave responded in his first half of football by completing only two passes, but was victimized by some drops from his receivers and led the Badgers on their game-winning score.
“Joel is a guy who is a little bit unique,” said Bielema. “He’s mature beyond his years. He still has a lot of kid in him. I think when you see him he’s got some innocence with the way he handles everything. He really has a lot of fun.
“I don’t think things get to him in the big picture. He is one of those guys as a quarterback, he doesn’t get rattled. He just popped in there in a difficult situation down 14-3.”
Although he was taking his first career snaps, was put into a pressure situation and barely threw the ball, Stave showed a sense of maturity beyond his years that impressed Wisconsin’s seventh-year head coach.
“He didn’t do a lot throwing the ball but I liked his response,” Bielema said. “One of the first times he came off of the field there was a third down incomplete pass. The look wasn’t there and he said, ‘I threw it low and away which is the only thing that I had.’ And he was 100 percent right. You know he is seeing the right things, which gives you a lot of belief that when the picture is there he’s going to make the right call.”
Bielema also reiterated that he makes every change with the idea that it is a long-term adjustment, giving off the impression that Wisconsin is going to go with Stave as long as the offense is productive. However, Bielema left the door open that both O’Brien and Phillips could be involved in certain situations.
“Danny O’Brien has come in and done a great job at two minutes,” said Bielema. “For him, I’ve seen him do that. In my mind both types of situations arise and right now there’s no body better in that situation than Danny O’Brien. I think Curt and what he brings to the table in certain situations gets you excited about him as a player. And Joel has a wide range of being able to do it all.”
Should Wisconsin use multiple quarterbacks, it would be the first time the Badgers did that since 2009 when Bielema used then-junior Scott Tolzien and Phillips (then a redshirt freshman) in certain situations with different offensive packages.
Seizing both kicking jobs in the final two weeks of camp, redshirt sophomore Kyle French started his season strong with two made field goals in the opener and a number of booming kickoffs through the first two games.
But after a porous performance against Utah State (one missed field goal and one kickoff out of bounds), Bielema said true freshman Jack Russell will be involved in some regard Saturday.
“I do think that Jack Russell will kick a ball this week,” said Bielema. “Whether it’s going to be kickoff or a field goal, we are going to give him a ball. He’s looked good these last couple of weeks and looked really good today. He was 4-for-4. The last opportunity was from the 52 so I think he is going to continue to impress us.”
After suffering a concussion that held him out of last week’s nail biter against Utah State, Jared Abbrederis is clear to play.
“Abbrederis has been practicing all week. He’s clear, 100 percent to go, he’s been with us Tuesday forward,” Bielema said.
Abbrederis is not expected to be used on kickoff or punt return.
“The guys have been practicing well all week; they are ready and anxious to play,” Bielema said. “We have an opportunity here to play before conference games. I know we haven’t played a complete game yet, so we are looking forward to Saturday and hopefully put it all together.”