After having the weekend to digest the loss of their starting quarterback, the Wisconsin Badgers are moving forward with what they have.
The bye week allows the coaching staff to evaluate its options before announcing the decision to go with either Danny O'Brien or Curt Phillips as Stave's replacement, and head coach Bret Bielema said he might not even tell the public who will start before Wisconsin's next game, Nov. 10 at Indiana.
With the players given the week off from media obligations, offensive coordinator Matt Canada and offensive line coach Bart Miller, leaders of perhaps the two most maligned units from Saturday's 16-13 loss to Michigan State, faced a bevy of questions after the Badgers returned to the practice field.
How did the offense manage only 190 yards? Why did O'Brien look so uncomfortable? With Stave gone, how will the offensive line adjust?
"Well obviously, the situation is a challenge," Canada said. "It's 11 guys doing their job, that's the bottom line. The quarterback gets a lot of credit, sometimes a lot of the blame, sometimes undeserved. We've got play better, I've got to coach better."
That well-rounded answer was expected from the leader of Wisconsin's offense, now ranked ninth in the Big Ten with 361.2 yards per game. But issues moving the ball and scoring points -- the Badgers managed just one trip to the red zone against the Spartans and it only led to a field goal -- always end up falling on the quarterback. Stave broke his clavicle on the first drive of the third quarter after a hard sack by MSU defensive lineman William Gholston, ending his season in the process and ushering O'Brien back onto the field for the first time since Sept. 29 at Nebraska. That, too, was to attempt four passes as UW's "two-minute quarterback."
O'Brien has completed 60.5 percent of his passes for 523 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, though the Badgers managed only 49 points in the three games he started. Against Michigan State, the junior transfer from Maryland completed only five of his 11 passes for 44 yards.
"I think he came in and he was certainly confident, he believed he could go in and get it done," Canada said. "He made some good plays. We just didn't make enough good plays to win the game. That falls on me; I've got to coach everybody better and we've got to put them in better positions."
Phillips, meanwhile, officially re-entered the race for the starting quarterback spot after Bielema announced at his Monday press conference that the senior would split practice reps with O'Brien this week. Prior to entering the field late in the 31-14 win at Illinois on Oct. 6 -- Phillips did not attempt a pass and rushed only once for minus-two yards -- he hadn't seen game action since 2009 due to three knee injuries that all required surgery.
Tuesday, Canada said that Phillips has indeed taken plenty of reps. In fact, he suggested that Phillips has been taking just as many snaps as O'Brien over the past several weeks, due to the uncertainty that lingered before Stave won three straight games.
"It was a three-man race, so obviously it was Danny at the start and Joel later on," Canada said. "So [Phillips] is not coming in completely empty. Him and Danny have had the same amount of reps the last few weeks.
"Curt's a quarterback, Curt's a smart guy that likes the game. He works at it, he's continued to grind at it whether it was his third, second, first [injury]. Curt's obviously had a challenge physically with his situation, so it's an opportunity for him to go play and compete. It wasn't like he was away out of the mix. We only play one guy, so I think we've found a way to play a lot of them this year."
Miller: "At the end of the day, we've still got to block"
Ineffective as O'Brien was on Saturday, the offensive line in front of him also deserved a hefty portion of criticism. Michigan State managed five sacks on Saturday -- after entering the game with only six -- and four came in the second half. The first of those ended Stave's season, while the second came two plays later and with O'Brien trying to complete a 3rd-and-17 from the Badgers' 25-yard line.
But pass protection wasn't even the largest issue. Wisconsin managed only 19 rushing yards -- granted, they did come against the nation's seventh-ranked rushing defense -- which magnified O'Brien's trouble in moving the ball and avoiding negative plays. Montee Ball had to rush 22 times for 46 yards (2.1 per carry), James White's seven carries yielded just 16 yards (2.3 per carry) and Jared Abbrederis took one handoff seven yards. Between a sack of Stave, a poor snap on the new "Barge" wildcat formation and three sacks of O'Brien, the Badgers managed to lose 40 yards in a three-point game.
"They didn't really show us anything we hadn't seen," Miller said. "Some of the stuff they did in the run game was a little bit of a challenge. We had obviously walked through a lot of those; every time you saw the [weak-side linebacker] and the [cornerback] off the edge, that's one thing we really, really focused on. Obviously they brought the middle barrels and some of those blitzes inside designed to kind of screw up your run. We made some adjustments on the sideline in terms of drawing them up, picking them up, recognizing them."
With either O'Brien or Phillips behind center now, Miller and his linemen will be forced into even more adjustments. Phillips' once prized mobility is now a question mark after his three knee surgeries, and that was always considered his strength as a quarterback. O'Brien has been mainly hot and cold -- but again, not entirely because of his own faults.
"At the end of the day, we've still got block; we've still got to protect and do all those things," Miller said. "It does change a little bit [with a new quarterback]. Some of the nuances; his cadences, the way he calls plays, the way he takes command of the huddle. All those things, those are all important and minor pieces that a lot of people don't really think about.
"But those things will affect us a little bit. All that will be is just working with him this week in practice and next week. Whoever the starter is, we're going to protect him like we should. We're going to ride him to Indy."