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The Curious Case of Wisconsin Quarterbacks

Or "An Impassioned Defense of Joel Stave"

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

So since football started in 1990, there have been (obviously) a fair amount of quarterbacks to have started at the position for the Badgers. They range from Super Bowl winners to guys who ended up playing for Catawba College (thanks Maryland!). The latter one being who Wisconsin's current signal caller replaced and promptly completely outperformed. To truly understand the enigma that faces the Badgers one has to go back to before the beginning when there was only Christ Chryst.

To be fair, Chryst was never much of a player at Wisconsin. He only threw nine passes in his career, and actually played more tight end his senior year than he ever played at quarterback. To put that into perspective, Joel Stave has thrown 661 attempts in his career. However, it was after his less than illustrious playing career was over that his rise as an offensive guru began. He spent several years coaching everywhere from Canada to Platteville, while simultaneously the man who is now his boss became coach at Wisconsin, which everyone now knows as the time when college football started.

Now 1990 was not the best season for Wisconsin. For starters, the Badgers finished last in the nation in scoring offense. Junior Tony Lowery managed to throw just 5 TDs against 13 Interceptions despite starting every game. To be fair, when a team finishes last in the nation in scoring offense with no receiver catching more than 26 passes (Alex Erickson had 55 catches last season, or more than the top two Badgers in 1990 combined), quarterback probably isn't your only problem. Is it fair to say that Stave is better than Tony Lowery? Yes, but we already knew that. Stave wins football games. So now that we have a baseline for bad, let's continue.

In 1991, Wisconsin was slightly better, and in turn they also got better quarterback play. Lowery was slightly better as well, although Jay Macias saw a lot of time at QB as well. 1991 also saw Terrell Fletcher and Brent Moss come on to the scene in Madison, starting the trend of Wisconsin quarterbacks being as good as the running backs behind them. In 1992 Wisconsin again went 5-6, but there were further encouraging signs. Darrell Bevell took over as Wisconsin quarterback, and for the first time in the history of college football* Wisconsin had a quarterback throw for more touchdowns than interceptions. Brent Moss proved to legitimate number one running back, as well as Lee DeRasmus become Wisconsin's first true receiving threat. The table had been set for...

WISCONSIN'S RISE TO THE TOP. While there are many things that improve when a team goes from 5-6 to Rose Bowl champions, the most notable might be jumping from scoring 19 points a game to scoring just shy of 30. Not surprisingly, Bevell had the best season for a Wisconsin QB in 30 years. This was greatly aided by Brent Moss and Terrell Fletcher combining to run for 2,700 yards. The prototype had been set for how a Wisconsin offense should function. Bevell again had a successful season in 1994, although not quite as successful as 1993. In what is perhaps not a coincidence, the run game was also not as good. Neither were 1990-1992 levels of bad however, as Wisconsin still went 7-4-1 and won a bowl game. In 1995, it became clear that Wisconsin was always going to need to rely on the run. Bevell had a solid season, throwing for over 2200 yards, but Wisconsin failed to establish a run game, and Wisconsin only managed to win 4 games. Bevell rode off into the sunset to begin his coaching career, where he now coaches another former Badger. Russell something...

1996 signaled the start of the Mike Samuel era, but more importantly it was the start of the Ron Dayne era. Samuel's stats were decidedly meh, but when you have a back run for over 2,100 yards it doesn't really matter. 1996 might have been the starting point of Wisconsin "hand ball off and pound people into submission" as Wisconsin attempted only 20 passes a game, down from 30 the year before. The result was 8 wins including the bowl. 1997 was much of the same, as Samuel threw more interceptions than touchdowns, but Dayne pounded his way to 1,500 yards and 15 TDs and Wisconsin won 8 games anyway.

Did say I 1996 was the start of "pound people into submission" Wisconsin? Because if 1996 was the start of it, then 1998 was when it reached its pinnacle. When your starting QB only throws six TDs and completes 52.3 percent of his passes and you're not running the option you must be starting a fullback at running back and your offensive line is probably massive. You're also probably not very good unless you're just awesome at running the ball. Well Wisconsin was, and it helped that they also had the number one scoring defense in the nation. Fun fact- The 1999 Rose Bowl is the first football game I remember watching end to end.

1999 was the beginning of the Brooks Bollinger era, and he might have even been a quarterback before his time. He was a good passer, throwing only two interceptions with a 143.6 QB rating, while also running for almost 500 yards. That doesn't sound like a lot, but when your running back carries it 337 times, that's quite a bit. Wisconsin also had a fantastic defense again, and again won the Rose Bowl.

2000 provides an example of what happens when a decent but not great QB has a good but not Heisman caliber running back without a top five defense. Wisconsin doesn't beat elite teams. Is 9-4 bad? No, but Bollinger was clearly not going to win you games singlehandedly. At his best, he was going to be a more talented Mike Samuel. I'd rather not discuss 2001 because it's the only losing season Wisconsin has had in my memory. Suffice it to say, Bollinger was less than spectacular. Although to be fair, the defense was bad that year. 2002 was a bounce back year for Bollinger and the Badgers, especially the defense. Hey Nebraska fans, did you know getting rid of Kevin Cosgrove can make your defense better?

2003 was a weird year. Jim Sorgi had a good season, but with Anthony Davis hurt, Wisconsin didn't have a thousand yard rusher for the first time since 1994, and only won seven games. If you need further confirmation that Wisconsin needs an elite running game for good things to happen, there it is. Yet, as a counterpoint, in 2004 Wisconsin really didn't do anything well on offense, and won 9 games. Of course, John Stocco did manage to not turn the ball over.

2005 brought back our old friend Paul Chryst. So what exactly did that mean to incumbent quarterback John Stocco? Well here's a handy chart.

Year Comp. Att. Yards TD INT QB Rating
2004 169 321 1999 9 7 109.8
2005 197 328 2920 21 9 150.5

So Stocco got A LOT BETTER UNDER CHRYST. Keep that in mind later. His stats dropped a bit in 2006, but there's no shame in a 17-6 TD/INT ratio. More importantly, Wisconsin went 12-1 with a first year head coach. If Chryst can do with Stave what he did with Stocco, Wisconsin will win the Big Ten in a shootout with OSU in Indy.

2007 saw a little bit of backslide, but that's to be expected when you have to replace your QB (and RB). Tyler Donovan wasn't great, but he still threw for 2,600 yards his senior year after only attempting 55 passes his entire career. Interestingly, Donovan is the only QB who didn't have their QB rating get better their first year starting for Chryst. If Stave throws for 2600 yards he'll have his QB rating go up a lot. No small sample size here. 2008 was a bit of a clusterfuck of ugh. Neither Dustin Sherer nor Allan Evridge was particularly good, and Wisconsin found a way to have a runback tandem of thunder and more thunder weighing in at 500 pounds run for 2,000 yards. The result? 7 wins and getting absolutely destroyed by FSU.

2009 saw the emergence of Scott Tolzein. Now here's the deal with Scott Tolzien. He probably had the best season of any Wisconsin QB ever not named Russell Wilson in 2010. A lot of people seem to forget that because Wilson broke literally every single passing record Tolzien broke. Well let's take a look at his 2009 first, because that's a more realistic expectation of Stave in 2015. He completed 64% of his passes, threw for 2700 yards, and threw 17 TDs against 11 INTs. If Stave puts those stats up a lot of Badger fans will be very happy. Here's the thing though, Wisconsin had four guys catch at least 29 passes that season. Two of them (Lance Kendricks and Garrett Graham) are starting on Sundays. Who's gonna catch 29 passes or more this year? Alex Erickson, ?, ?, and ?. Ted Gilmore better do a lot of work with those receivers.

And now we get to Paul Chryst's Greatest Hits. Wisconsin had Montee Ball fall 12 feet short of having three 1,000 yard rushers, the offense scored 41 points a game, and Tolzien completed a ridiculous 72.9 percent of his passes in 2010. Also of note, four wide receivers caught at least 20 passes. The leading receiver was a tight end (Kendricks). So that's five guys that caught at least 20 passes Again, I don't now if there are five that will catch ten this year. Jordan Frederick is the number two receiver returning and he caught just 13 passes despite starting every game. The Rose Bowl was a thing that happened, but no shame losing by two to the #2 in the nation no matter how much you should've just ran the ball down their throats and won.

I'm not even really going to discuss Wilson. He was really good at NC State, and Chryst helped make him better. Beyond that, for the sake of this exercise, it's stupid to compare Wilson to Stave. Wilson is worlds more talented than any other quarterback Wisconsin has had, and they aren't even close to the same player. Maybe DJ Gillins can draw comparisons in the future, but not Stave.

Which bring us to the beginning of the current state of Wisconsin quarterbacking. Bringing in a transfer QB from an ACC school worked so well the first time we thought we'd try it again. Well Danny O'Brien wasn't 1/100th as good as Wilson so he got benched for a walk on redshirt freshman named Joel Stave. And Stave was having himself a fine season until Gholston decided to break him in half #thugtans. The second half of the season is exactly why I don't understand anyone in the "Anybody But Stave" camp. As I pointed out earlier Wednesday. Wisconsin is 6-7 when Stave doesn't start and finish a game (excepting all the blowout wins of course when we have to protect his collarbone). When he does? They're 21-5. The only quarterback who can say they win like that over multiple seasons in the Big Ten is Connor Cook. As long as he doesn't try trucking any Bama linebackers like he tried against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl Wisconsin will win games with Stave at QB. Anyone who thinks they're better off looking elsewhere at the moment should watch the second half against LSU or 4th quarter against South Carolina or really anytime Stave hasn't been under center. Although I'd be advised it may cause blindness or bleeding from the retinas. Especially if you're a Nebraska a fan and you watch the 2012 CCG. 70 points. 9 pass attempts. Beautiful.

So what does all this mean for Joel Stave and the Wisconsin Badgers? Well for starters, when Wisconsin has relied on the arm of their quarterback, 8 wins is about the ceiling, with a floor of missing a bowl. Granted that won't happen this year, with Corey Clement and Co. in the backfield and a solid defense. So what is the realistic expectation for Stave? Well last year all over again is probably the floor. That would be bad for the Badgers. As far as improvement goes. Realistically in my unprofessional opinion he's probably about as talented as Bevell, maybe Tolzien. If he could put together Tolzien's junior year that would be fantastic, and for his talent level it isn't unrealistic to think he could. Tolzien had a better supporting cast of receivers though. Ultimately, Joel Stave's improvement might not even depend on Joel Stave.

TL;DR version- How Wisconsin QBs play is basically irrelevant to how good a season Wisconsin has as long as the defense is good and there's a stud running back behind them, although when Wisconsin is really good, there's usually a good QB, but it isn't necessarily a requirement. So if Stave is really good (and there's reason to believe he could be), look out.

All stats are from