Plan B at QB

by Richard Branch

The final chapter of the 2013 edition of Tanner McEvoy - Quarterback has been written and it hasn't ended the way many had hoped or thought.  McEvoy punted his opportunity to win the job at quarterback (yep, I went there) conceding the fight to Joel Stave and Curt Phillilps.  While McEvoy will be used in some hybrid wide receiver role, the issue of who leads the offense onto the field against UMass remains unanswered. 

Curt Phillips has admirable qualities. Mental mistakes are kept to a minimum.  He has reasonable mobility.  He’s engineered critical scoring drives late in games.  And not to be left out he’s tabbed as an “it factor” guy with huddle presence; he is a leader of men.

A little less than two weeks ago Joel Stave was predicted to win the job if McEvoy failed to take control of the quarterback raceThat prediction still stands.  Stave simply makes the offense – and it’s most critical weapons in the passing game – more of a threat to opponents than Phillips. 

It’s no secret that Stave has the edge in natural quarterbacking ability at this point in their careers.  With his surgically repaired knees Curt Phillips not only has lost some of his mobility but more importantly power on his throws; Stave has one of the best arms on the team.  In 2012 Stave completed 14 passes of 25 yards or more.  Phillips had only three.  There is a real threat of explosive play from the passing game with Stave at quarterback.  With Phillips, the opposing defense is freer to concentrate on stopping the Badgers primary offensive threat: the run game.

Wisconsin’s top receivers performed very differently in the six games Stave started versus the five of Phillips.

Jared Abbrederis

Quarterback

Avg. Comp.

Avg. Yards

YPC

Total TDs

Joel Stave

4.7

91.2

19.5

3

Curt Phillips

2.4

32.4

13.5

0

Jacob Pedersen

Quarterback

Avg. Comp.

Avg. Yards

YPC

Total TDs

Joel Stave

1.7

31.8

19.1

2

Curt Phillips

1.8

18.2

10.1

1

The contrast in Abbrederis’ performance is stark.  He caught twice as many passes - for almost 50% more yards per completion - with Stave at quarterback.  His best performances – UTEP, Nebraska in the regular season, and Illinois – were all with Stave. Without Stave, Abbrederis’ ability to deep defenders deep was largely negated as he didn’t have a quarterback to get him the ball.  His last touchdown reception of the season was in early October.

Jacob Pedersen’s numbers are not as striking, but tell a similar story.  While he maintained his reception rate, Pedersen’s yards per catch were nearly half with Phillips what they were with Stave.  The numbers imply Pedersen was able to work in space underneath to get receptions, but Phillips wasn’t able to work the ball downfield to his tight end in any meaningful way. 

With Phillips at quarterback the Badgers relinquished nearly 75 yards a game in offense from a passing attack that was already limited and an offense that was overall one-dimensional.  No player on the team is so separated from the 2nd best player at his position as Abbrederis is at wide receiver.  It’s critical every bit of productivity be squeezed out of him, and to a lesser extent Pedersen, as possible.  By having Phillips at quarterback you’re effectively diminishing their talents in a receiving corps that is already short of it. 

Joel Stave.jpeg

Beyond the performance of the Badgers’ two best receiving threats, the best argument for Stave may simply be his own performance as starter.  Two seasons ago Stave was a relatively unknown walk on buried on the depth chart.  In his second start as a redshirt freshman he strode into Lincoln unbowed by a hostile road environment, turning in a solid if unspectacular performance.  Against Michigan State - one of the best defenses in the country - Stave was having his best game of the season before he broke his collarbone and ended his season.

His statistics speak to the strength of his performance.  In his six starts Stave averaged an impressive 9.7 yards per pass attempt.  If extrapolated over an entire season (a big if admittedly) he would have finished 2nd only to Aaron Murray in the entire FBS in that category.  His 154.7 passing efficiency rating was top-20 in the country and only half a point behind another notable redshirt freshman: Johnny Manziel.

Those facts are not to be construed as an opening salvo in a Joel Stave Heisman campaign.  He has issues of his own and his far from perfect.  He took too many unnecessary, drive-killing sacks.  He tries to force the ball at times.  These are mistakes borne of youth and inexperience.  Stave still has three full seasons of football ahead of him; as he gains a better understanding of the game at the collegiate level he will be come less prone to making them.

Beyond the mistakes made in his on the job training, the only real strike against him is his mobility.  To steal a line from Jim Rutledge, Stave is like a statue.  Gary Andersen has stressed the importance of mobility in his quarterbacks, and Joel has little of that.  He’s not athletic and he’s not fast.  The coaching staff’s expressed desire to have someone who can make something positive happen when the play breaks down; Stave does not have that in him.

What he does have are the best tools to lead this team right now.  Curt Phillips’ determination to stay in football despite all his medical setbacks is admirable.  His role as a leader on this senior laden team is founded in his resolve to not give up the game despite the roadblocks he’s faced over the course of his career. 

But this senior laden team is not one that is building for the future or can absorb the handicap of a limited if grizzly veteran leader; it has an opportunity to win now.  It needs the quarterback that’s going to make the best use of the weapons at hand.  Stave at quarterback nearly guarantees a significant improvement in a passing offense that finished 115th in passing yards per game in 2012.  To win now, that has to get better.  Much better.  For that reason alone Joel Stave should be the quarterback to open the season.