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Roundtable: Joel Stave, Wisconsin passing game have surprised; offensive line disappointed

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The first of three roundtables breaking down the Badgers' performance this season, starting with the offense.

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Who or what has been the biggest surprise within Wisconsin's offense so far this season?

Owen Riese: Honestly I've been pretty surprised at how well redshirt senior quarterback Joel Stave has handled everything that's gone on this season. No one was going to mistake him for a major prospect, but for someone who has taken as much flack as he has over his career for not producing with "plenty of talent", he's put together a pretty good season thus far with pretty bare cupboards. I tweeted this the other day, this is what the offense has been this season: *Matt Lepay voice* "Joel Stave, the former walk-on from Whitnall High School, drops back, with a play action fake to Dare Ogunbowale, the former walk-on cornerback, and hits former walk-on Alex Erickson for a 20-yard gain -- first down Badgers!" This is truly a crazy thing to think about, with where Wisconsin is as a football program. A perennial top 25 football team getting this much help from formerly non-scholarship players is remarkable. Stave should certainly be commended for being *ducks* as consistent as he has been this season.

Jon Arens: Anyone who regularly watches Wisconsin football saw this season coming offensively. With players pulled together across three coaching regimes, you could make the argument that this team is drastically overachieving from an offensive standpoint. Ogunbowale used to be a defensive back. True freshman Alec Ingold used to be a linebacker. Erickson used to be the guy at the SERF who could lift way more than you could lift so you avoided his judgmental gaze near the free weights. And obviously, Stave used to be Not Danny O'Brien, then Not Curt Phillips, then What In The World Is This, then Not Tanner McEvoy, and now is officially I (Probably) Have My Own Chapter in a Wisconsin Football Book Joel Stave. Stave is by no means a spring chicken in the Wisconsin system, so his development into a trustworthy offensive asset should be expected. That being said, the production he has given this fall is commendable, and I think he deserves the end to his career he is putting together. Currently tied for second all time in wins by a quarterback, Stave will likely go down in history as one of the more recognizable and accomplished players in the modern (Barry to now) era at UW. Good for Stave -- a consummate professional in an amateur world.

Neal Olson: This is not meant to diminish anyone's contributions, but the Badgers offense was pretty much who we thought they were. Stave has his ups and downs, the young offensive line has struggled at times, Erickson has been the only consistent receiving threat. All in all nearly everything has played out to script. Certainly we expected one or two guys to make ‘the jump' from role player to All-Big Ten caliber (hello Robert Wheelwright!) or from good/great to Heisman conversation (looking at you, Corey Clement). But injuries have pretty much derailed seeing of those developments.

The biggest surprise might be how successful the Badgers have been in revamping the offense from run first to set up the pass, to an offense relying almost entirely on passing to move the ball. Stave has averaged nearly 29 pass attempts per game, which includes the Illinois game when he attempted only seven throws before getting injured. If he continues at that pace, he will far exceed his career season high of 336 passes over 13 games in 2013. Wisconsin will not be confused with the Big 12 spread offenses slinging the ball around everyone of course, but credit to head coach Paul Chryst and staff in getting the most out of what is available to them.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the biggest disappointment from the offense?

Owen: To piggyback off of Neal, it's the offensive line, but not so much for the lack of continuity, or even the run game, which hasn't been great, but pass blocking. Stave has been sacked 15 times so far this season, admittedly not a terrible number, but the number of times he's been hit as he throws is crazy. One thing we've always been able to say about Stave is that he's a tough kid, as he sits in there until the last second to deliver the ball, kill-shot on the way be damned. About the only thing that fans haven't been able to complain about Stave for is getting hurt, and frankly the offensive line hasn't helped matters much. At this point, it's a pride thing. Being a former offensive lineman, there comes a point where you just don't allow it to happen anymore. Expect their protections to be much more sound after the bye week.

Jon: I don't completely blame the offensive line for their play this year. Decimated by injuries, and featuring lineman that were recruited for a different offense than is currently being run, they should actually be getting some credit for keeping the ship afloat, relatively speaking. I think the bigger disappointment is the running back position. The consensus opinion, both locally and nationally, is that literally anyone can run for 1000 yards at Wisconsin. This year, we have seen the limits of that assumption. Ogunbawale has been serviceable, but well below average. The lack of big runs (anything over ten yards) this year has been galling. Dare has had his moments, but mostly as a receiver. Taiwan Deal has also been underwhelming, and has not really shown much outside of the skill set you would normally expect out of a goal line back. The days of being three deep all day at running back are long gone, and the coaching staff really needs to make the position a priority this upcoming year, which are words I never thought I would be saying when James White, contested waiver wire pick up this week , was second off the bench a few years ago.

Neal: We all knew entering the season the offensive line was going to experience growing pains. Three starters had graduated, but we told ourselves, this is Wisconsin! NFL offensive lineman are as common and cheese curds and bratwurst (sorry borrowed some copy from the ESPN broadcasting team)! However, the logic still applies. If there was one position that can be counted on at Wisconsin, regardless of returning experience, it's the offensive line. This year injuries have ravaged an already inexperienced group. Tyler Marz at left tackle has been the only one to start at the same position for all eight games thus far. Needless to say, a struggling offensive line is nearly impossible to overcome. Luckily for Wisconsin, a favorable schedule and championship level defense have eased an already bumpy road.

Offensive MVP: Who deserves the acclaim?

Owen: Stave, as Neal said, is the only actual choice. Which is actually a pretty fitting end to a career that has had as many ups and downs as his has. It's also a bit of a testament to him that if you ran a poll before this year started: "If Clement is hurt all but two games, what is the Badgers record through 10 games? Keep in mind, Stave will be throwing the ball 35 times per game." The average response would probably have been around the 5-5 ballpark, so to go 8-2 with such a suspect supporting cast, Stave absolutely deserves this. Also, without a freak accident fumble at the goal-line, and Wisconsin is 9-1 and No. 10 in the country. So that's a thing.

Jon: I have already sung the praises of Stave, so I will go with 1a here in Erickson. The versatile playmaker has been Abbredaris-eque this season, vacuuming up a vast majority of the targets from Stave, even as opposing defenses focus on the former walk on. According to Fox Sports Wisconsin's incomparible Dave Heller, Erickson is somewhere within the top ten nationally in targets with 105. Erickson's route running is really where he stands out, as was the case with Abbredaris. I am looking forward to Erickson cracking an NFL roster next year like his former teammate. Just a fabulous player.

Neal: There is no other choice but Stave here. Despite missing the best offensive playmaker, playing behind an inexperienced offensive line and returning one receiving target, Stave has had to carry the load on offense. He warrants some criticism for his roller coaster play and when it goes bad for Stave, it goes epically awful -- but he understands the offense and makes the most out of the weapons he has. Keep in mind, Wisconsin's passing game is almost entirely predicated on building off running the ball and play action passes. Without any consistent run game threat, the offense has had to rely more heavily and deep drop back passes and timing routes, definitely not in their historical wheelhouse. Yet, Stave has completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,162 yards and ten touchdowns with only Erickson as a consistent receiving threat. It may not be pretty all the time, but Stave has been the Badgers best offensive player by a long shot.

What should Wisconsin fans expect from the offense in the final two games of the year?

Owen: If Clement is back, that's huge. That almost single handedly makes Northwestern bring an eighth guy into the box. That allows Wisconsin go for those 60-yard moonshots that Stave loves to throw so much, but he just hasn't had much opportunity to this season, due to the two high safety looks they've been given and been unable to take advantage of this season. Also, Clement makes the offensive line much better by the simple fact that he will make their blocks right, as his vision is much better than any other back on the roster at this point in their careers.

Jon: No surprise here -- if Clement is back, this is a completely different football team. His patience makes up for the limitations on the offensive line, and his ability to finish runs separates himself from the rest of the running backs on the staff. Ogunbowale can be used in his more dangerous receiving role when Clement is keeping opposing defense honest. I would like to see Fumagalli continue to expand his role on offense and specifically in the red zone, where not having Wheelwright is hurting the Badgers. At this point, it is too much to expect Stave to start magically looking off his boy Erickson, but I am hoping the existence of a running game might allow the senior a couple of chances to toss his signature 65-yard bomb before he makes his curtain call.

Neal: With any luck, the bye week will allow some players with lingering injuries to heal up enough and get back on the field. Clement, Austin Traylor and Wheelwright would all be welcomed additions and bring more playmaking ability. The Badgers have not their full complement of offensive weapons at full strength for any game yet this season. While getting Wheelwright back prior to the Minnesota game sounds like a long shot, both Clement and Traylor have a good chance to see action against Northwestern. With those guys back in the mix, we can expect to see a more balanced offensive attack. One that will not rely so heavily on passing, or at the very least build off play action. Hopefully this translate to Stave not locking onto Erickson on nearly every drop back and spreading the ball around more.