MADISON -- There was something to be said about Joel Stave's performance in Wisconsin's Saturday game against Tennessee Tech.
Was the word "gutsy?" It could be, considering the quarterback was masterful after throwing a dreadful interception in the second quarter.
Was the word "average?" Perhaps. The sophomore often stared down wide receivers, made an error of judgment on a fumbled snap and under-threw several passes to open men, including one on a fourth down.
Or maybe the word we’re looking for is "progress?" That’s probably the easiest way to characterize Stave’s performance in the Badgers’ second game of the season. The competition hasn’t been incredible, making the youngster’s two interceptions on the season concerning, but he has also shown he has the poise and control to lead Wisconsin’s offense in 2013.
"Any young player, you’re going to live with ups and downs, and it’s just magnified when you’re at the quarterback position," Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said. "He’s moving in the right direction… The passing game will continue to expand as we move forward."
That right direction Andersen referred to is probably geared toward two big figures: 10-for-10 and 13.
The first, 10-for-10, was Stave’s attempts and completions on Wisconsin’s two-minute drive to end the first half. A series of short and middling passes, Stave’s throws were mostly crisp and his decision-making decisive, hitting seven different targets on his way to throwing a six-yard touchdown to tight end Brian Wozniak.
The second number, 13, represents the consecutive completions Stave had after his interception in the second quarter.
"That’s what you like to do," Stave said. "You want to throw completions. You want to give your guys a chance to make plays, and we’re doing a great job protecting."
Andersen sees his signal caller getting better each week, but still admits that there’s not much of a measuring tape to gauge where his quarterback is after just 120 minutes of play.
"I think he’s grown in two games," Andersen said. "We’re really not going to know how much he’s grown until we continue to move forward. I’m proud of the progress."
Stave finished the game with a solid stat line: 24-for-29, 219 yards and three touchdowns. Most of that damage was done in the first half because the game was safely in hand after the first 30 minutes. Still, the passing game appeared more consistent after a Week 1 game with UMass that had Wisconsin's air attack looking a bit sluggish.
And there were hiccups again Saturday. Mistakes like the ones made the last two weeks haven't hurt the Badgers, due to a mixture of luck and weak competition. Against competition like UMass and Tennessee Tech, anything less than a perfect performance from Stave cannot be acceptable. And he wasn't.
The interception Stave threw highlighted a flaw that has already plagued the quarterback: staring down his receivers. Against Tennessee Tech, Stave’s interception came on a 3rd-and-long in the second quarter, forcing a ball to Jared Abbrederis in blanketed coverage while looking left the entire time.
"It was a heck of the play by the linebacker out there," Stave said. "He kind of rerouted the first inside curl and I just didn’t. ... He got out there quicker than I thought he would."
And what about another fumbled snap? It’s the most base mistake that will drive a coach insane, but after initially recovering the botched play, Stave tried to force a handoff to an unprepared James White, allowing the ball to once again touch the ground.
Low-grade teams means high-grade stat-lines and that’s what Wisconsin has produced across the board the last two weeks, posting shutouts, blowouts and immoral rushing numbers. Stave’s stats have been good, but the overall performance has not yet been great.
Stave himself knows he has plenty to improve on.
"You’re never thrilled about throwing interceptions," Stave said. "You never want to turn the ball over. That’s something I’m going to watch, learn from and make sure I’m making the right reads."
Managing the game, making good decisions, taking care of the ball, these are all basics that Stave must continue to improve upon if Wisconsin has any hope of beating a solid Arizona State team in the desert.
A season ago, Stave wasn’t rattled when he started his first road game of his Wisconsin career in perhaps the biggest nuthouse of them all -- Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium -- but for some reason, he looked a bit out of whack against UMass and shaky at times against Tennessee Tech.
Keep in mind the young quarterback doesn’t even have what’s considered a full season of starts under his belt. He will get better over time as most inexperienced players do, but now it's more of a race against time for Wisconsin heading into its first true test of 2013, which begs the question, is Stave ready for the road?
Stave said after the game that he doesn’t have nerves before a game and won’t have any extra before going out on the field in Tempe, Ariz.
"You feel the same way before every game because every game is important to you," Stave said, adding he won’t feel any added pressure before playing Arizona State. "It’s about having that edge and being ready to go."
Let’s hope that’s the truth, because the fate of the 2013 season may be tied to the performance of Joel Stave.