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Cory Jennerjohn: Joel Stave needs to clean up passing warts for 2014

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We’ve all been spoiled.

Ever since the Badgers landed Russell Wilson as an NCAA free agent, the expectations for quarterback play have gone through the roof.

Wilson only played one season but arguably is the best quarterback Wisconsin has ever had and he did it with efficiency, a solid arm, quick feet and remarkable intelligence.

That leads us to where the Badgers have been since then.

Wisconsin has wandered through the quarterbacking wilderness the last two years.
After coming to Madison as a Maryland transfer with a lot of promise, Danny O’Brien flamed out before being replaced by Joel Stave, who was replaced by Curt Phillips.

O’Brien was 6-5 this year as the quarterback for Division II Catawba College. That’s quite a drop for a guy that didn’t lead the South Atlantic Conference in any passing categories.

Joel Stave came in and looked pretty good last year as a freshman. He went 4-2 and nearly stole a win in a night game at Nebraska, in which the atmosphere was absolutely electric. After Stave suffered a broken collarbone, Curt Phillips took over and put up a 2-3 mark against three ranked teams including No. 7 Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

That put the Badgers in a pretty good spot to start 2013. Even after new coach Gary Andersen came in — and brought in transfer Tanner McEvoy to compete for the starting job — Stave was able to win the job.

But it didn’t take long for Stave to show his warts. In the season opener against UMass he looked a little unsure of himself as he completed only nine passes and two weeks later at Arizona State it was the same script as he tallied 15 incompletions, most of which were either too high or at least five yards too long.

And that is what has been the biggest problem for a passing game that finally broke out and got some respect two years ago at Wisconsin. The Badgers have one of the best pass catchers in the Big Ten that will likely get drafted in the 3-5 round range, yet even when he’s all alone Stave still finds difficulty parachuting a deep ball into his waiting arms.

The reason Stave’s performance surprises me the most is because the Badgers broke the single season team rushing record with 3,396. Think about that for a second. When a place like Tailback U breaks a team rushing record it’s a big deal. In 2012 the Badgers amassed 3,309 yards and in 2011 they rolled up 3,298 yards. The tradition of the Wisconsin running backs is pretty well established not started by but sealed from the NCAA all-time rushing leader and Heisman winner Ron Dayne.

Stave has been seeing defenses that have been daring him to pass all year long. No team wants to see Melvin Gordon and James White run all over the field to harness Wisconsin’s pair of speedy and shifty backs. So, defensive coordinators would rather have Stave pass against boxes that have been filled with eight, nine and even 10 defenders.

And with the numbers stacked in his favor, Stave has had a season filled with hiccups. In the regular season finale vs. Penn State, he overshot several receivers including a couple potential big plays to Jared Abbrederis but then he displayed poor pocket awareness by not stepping up and getting swallowed for three sacks. And when he did get the ball off time, he threw three picks.

I realize it’s tough to find a quarterback that wins you games — especially at the college level. But it should be easier to find one that doesn’t cost you any, especially when the running game is so strong.

So where does that leave 2014? Do the Badgers go back with Stave or do they open it up for the sophomore Bart Houston who came to Madison with a lot of promise from California or do they pull the trigger on Jacksonville freshman D.J. Gillins, who is a wiry dual action quarterback?

Stave could get his starting job back but he really needs to improve his mechanics and footwork. His slow and long delivery reminds me of a setup man in baseball — with nobody on of course.

As Andersen said, “We're going to let them crowd the box, and we can't make the big plays on offense, you'll turn yourself into a real average football team real fast." That’s true Gary. The faster you can find a quarterback you can trust to win a game, the quicker Wisconsin will see another major bowl.

*****

To contact Cory Jennerjohn: e-mail him at jeobs@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter.

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