Joel Stave’s collegiate football career can only be described as strange. He’s seen Big Ten championships, three different head coaches, two transfer quarterbacks put ahead of him and still found himself as one of the best career quarterbacks in a Wisconsin Badgers uniform.
Many a quarterback has seen change and failed — even inside the Big Ten. Christian Hackenberg, a one-time 5-star prodigy, has been ruined by coaching change and its resulting horrid offensive line at Penn State, for the most recent example.
However, the former in-state walk-on conquered all of the adversity put in front of him during a four-year journey few would have survived, let alone thrived in.
It was only fitting then, that the ultimate fighter would become the ultimate winner in a Badgers uniform. As the clocked ticked away on Wisconsin’s 23-21 Holiday Bowl victory, it was also victory No. 31 for Stave as a starter — a feat no other quarterback in UW history had obtained.
He’ll be etched in the record books as the No. 1 quarterback in terms of career wins, yet he also may be the most maligned quarterback in UW history as well.
Maybe the only thing more fitting than going out a winner was the fact that it was Stave surviving a strange set of circumstances within the Holiday Bowl that got him win No. 31.
Stave and the Badgers weren’t expected to outduel USC’s high-powered passing attack, but that’s exactly what happened when it mattered most. Before a final drive flurry, Stave was outdueling Kessler on the stat sheet in a major way.
As it was, Stave finished the game completing 64 percent of his passes for 183 yards and a touchdown.
Not eye-popping numbers, but efficient and important at opportune times. Stave was a perfect complement to a defense that was holding the Trojans down for the majority of the game.
Kessler would ultimately finish with 221 yards, but completed just 56 percent of his passes and had a touchdown to go with an interception.
However, the biggest difference came in Stave’s ability to be clutch in the face of immense pressure. This time the pressure came in the form of a crazy situation for his team and a crazy individual situation.
As the Badgers tried to come back from a 21-20 deficit in the middle of the fourth quarter, Stave took a hit and was inadvertently stepped on by a USC defender, appearing to take a foot to the face.
Joel Freaking Stave, winningest QB in Wisconsin history. Reviled by many. Ends career w/ bloody nose and bowl win. I want to write his bio
— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) December 31, 2015
Stave was bloodied and perhaps suffered from a broken nose.
Instead of just allowing Bart Houston to take over for more than was necessary, Stave toughed it up and put some tape across his nose once the bleeding was under control and stuffed a cotton swab up his nose and went right back out there.
What resulted was classic Joel Stave, as he led the Badgers on a 7-play, 42-yard drive to put UW in a position to kick a potential game-winning field goal. As sophomore kicker Rafael Gaglianone’s kick went through the uprights with just 2:27 to go, Stave’s job was complete.
He had done it again — bringing the Badgers back from the brink of defeat and putting the rest of his team in position to win it.
It was just the final twist in what would be a hugely successful, but also controversial career. Stave didn’t do it alone either, another hallmark of his historic career.
The defense came through, as Jack Cichy capped off a fearsome second half (game-high 9 tackles, 3.0 sacks) with a tip of Kessler’s third down pass right in to the arms of a waiting Sojourn Shelton.
Shelton’s interception was the lone one of the game, and while UW didn’t get a first down on the ensuing possession, the time off the clock forced USC’s hand right back in to the strength of the Badgers defense — pass rushing.
Wisconsin’s defense force a 4-and-out and it was all over but the trophy presentation. Stave not only hoisted a second-straight bowl game title trophy, he also raised a MVP trophy for himself in this one.
However, the story begins some five seasons ago when Stave was a little freshman that no one knew. The Wisconsin Badgers quarterback went from little known quantity to intriguing prospect following an impressive 2011 spring football game. Many in observance saw him as the best option amongst a wholly unimpressive group around him.
Scholarship names like Joe Brennan, Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips all failed to impress or were injured in spring ball. That’s where Stave stepped in, showing a glimmer of hope on a dreary day in terms of the weather and the performance of quarterbacks around him.
However, Stave was just a walk-on freshman that entered college a semester early. Bret Bielema pulled one of the biggest recruiting jobs of his career in the early summer, getting former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson to transfer for his final season after UW lost long time starters Scott Tolzien to the NFL.
Stave would sit that season and redshirt, but still many doubted if he would be an answer ever in his career at Wisconsin.
Wilson would go on to set all sorts of single-season records and become one of the most beloved Badgers of the last decade. It didn’t hurt he did it with style, flair and a fun-loving attitude while also being ultra-competitive.
Stave? Well, he’s about the exact opposite of Wilson in terms of persona and personality. From day one to the very end of it all, Stave wasn’t exactly easy in front of the cameras or reporters.
Having been there for his first go-round with the media and during his final go-round, Stave never got used to the bright lights — it simply wasn’t and isn’t who he is.
He’d rather wear a college hoodie and play the piano than deal with questions from throngs of media and live in the spotlight that being a starting quarterback at a major university brings.
Still, Stave and Wilson had one major thing in common — an undeniable craving for competition and winning.
Wilson would go 11-2 during his one year in Madison, while Stave would finish 31-10 for the fourth-best winning percentage of any quarterback in UW history.
The next season, Stave still wasn’t thought of as the ultimate option and Wisconsin looked to Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien to be the one-and-done option to continue UW’s streak of Big Ten championships.
O’Brien turned in two-and-a-half lackluster (and that’s being nice) performances before Stave got the call. He would lead the Badgers to a comeback victory over Utah State, and he never looked back as the starter again in 2012.
Stave would go on to finish his first campaign of action with 1,104 yards and six touchdowns to three interceptions in just eight total games. It was a promising start, but before he could get comfortable change was about to come in waves.
With original offensive coordinator Paul Chryst already off to the head coaching gig at Pitt in 2011, Stave would take in a new head coach the following year as Bielema left for Arkansas and AD Barry Alvarez went on to hire Gary Andersen of Utah State.
Andersen opened up the QB competition in 2013 and again in 2014, with Stave responding well the first time around. He competed in 13 games and passed for 2,494 yards and a career-high 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions.
Even as late as the 2014 season, Stave still was fighting for his starting job. Head coach Gary Andersen wanted a running option at quarterback and shoved Tanner McEvoy down the throat of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig at the end of fall camp.
What ensued was an offense so one-dimensional that it barely escaped non-conference play with less than the opening loss to LSU. Stave also was suffering from the famous case of the “yips” and only came on after a disastrous start by McEvoy in the Big Ten opener against Northwestern.
Stave clearly wasn’t al the way back from those yips, and was unable to complete the comeback he had done so many times before — throwing a key interception as Wisconsin was pushing for a go-ahead drive.
However, he was clearly sparking a moribund offense and took over as the full-time starter after that game. Stave would finish his junior season with 1,350 yards and nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions. He also completed a career-low 53 percent of his passes.
The quarterback who survived all comers, all critics and his own mental issues after getting knocked down would still face one more larger hurdle.
Andersen took off following the 2014 season, leaving Alvarez to hire a familiar face in Paul Chryst. Nearly immediately, Chryst canned any talk of a quarterback competition and named Stave his starter.
It all led to another 10-win season for the Badgers and a ton of career records for Stave as well.
To be sure, he didn’t earn all of the 31 wins on his own. He certainly had help from the likes of Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement at running back and multiple NFL draft picks ahead of him on the offensive line.
He also had some consistent wide receiver named Alex Erickson, who was two receptions (77) shy of breaking the school record for single-season receptions (78) currently held by Jared Abbrederis from the 2013 season.
Not to forget about a defense that has grown from very good to one of the most feared in all of college football.
Still, Stave finishes tops in wins (31), had the most 200-yard passing games in a career (18), the most attempts, second in career passing yards (7,635), career touchdowns (48) and holds many more individual season records as well.
All of that for a walk-on that was passed over twice and faced with plenty of adversity, competition and injuries throughout his career.
Not too bad for a guy few loved and most enjoyed hating on over the last five years in a Badgers uniform. Perhaps some distance will make Badger fans remember just how good the times were with Joel Stave behind center, directing this team and getting positive results in the face of so many obstacles.