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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Amid an offense plagued by inconsistency, Stave is hardly the chief concern

It’s the sequence that some Wisconsin fans have visualized since the 2013 season: Joel Stave is forced out of the game, Bart Houston enters and the highly recruited quarterback from the Class of 2012 starts making it rain while the former walk-on stews on the bench. That’s what plenty of Wisconsin fans saw last Saturday against Illinois. It’s not really what happened, but it’s what people saw.

Bart Houston played as well as the Badger coaches could have hoped for. He took advantage of short routes meant to develop quicker than what is usually called for Stave and he was able to roll out more to negate what had been some putrid pass protection.

Houston was solid. He was also nowhere near good enough to justify playing him over a healthy Stave. Here’s the thing, those adjustments used with Houston aren’t going to work forever. Defenses watch tape and they adjust. A healthy Stave’s arm is much harder to adjust for.

And yet, the discussion has been raised by many about who the Badgers’ No. 1 quarterback should be. As if Stave has been enough of a problem for the offense that a replacement needs to be considered.

Of course some fans are pushing for Houston, because the alternative is accepting a hard truth: This is not a good Wisconsin offense, especially when it comes to running the ball.

The essential criticisms of Stave throughout his career lie on the preconceived notion that he is operating in a capable offense that simply needs a solid quarterback to continue its run amongst the Big Ten elites. That preconceived notion is wrong this year. Not just any plain sort of wrong, but that spectacular brand of wrong that demands rubbernecking and exasperated gasps. It’s the kind of wrong that makes your parents call you to make sure everything is okay. It’s as wrong as a pitcher of beer at the Terrace is right.

This is not a good Wisconsin offense, at any position. Except, just maybe, quarterback. Take some time and go through the position groups. I’m not blaming any members of the team or the coaching staff, I’m just stating a reality. The offensive line has had to trot five different starting lineups in seven games due to injuries, and is still starting three redshirt freshmen. The running back corps is down to two players who entered Wisconsin as walk-on defenders. The receiving corps continues to be Alex Erickson and the “Look! He Has Potential” Gang.

This is a Wisconsin offense that ranks 89th in the country in rush yards per game, down from fourth last year. That isn’t just because it lost Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and a solid chunk of the offensive line, it’s also because their replacements haven’t been up to snuff. Not that we should have reasonably expected them to.

Dare Ogunbowale is a decent back, but he does not have the explosiveness you’d desire out of a player of his build. Last year, Wisconsin ranked first in the country with 57 runs of 20 or more yards. Now, they rank 109th with six. The Badgers could have really used Corey Clement this year.

The problem for the Wisconsin has not been Joel Stave, it’s been the need for the coaching staff to give him 45 pass attempts per game because of a run game that isn’t working. Part of that is on the limited talent of the running backs, but it’s also on an offensive line left barren of NFL talent thanks to the Gary Andersen regime.

Not only are the three redshirt freshmen starting on the line young, but they’ve seen obstacles in the form of forced position changes and injuries. Michael Deiter started fall camp at right guard, moved to left guard when Ray Ball went down and has now moved to center with Dan Voltz out. Micah Kapoi has moved behind him, from the second-string right guard to now left guard. Beau Benzschawel missed more than a month before taking over right tackle.

The running game isn’t working. The offensive line is inexperienced and getting wrecked by injuries. The receiving corps still has only one consistent target in Erickson.

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But no, throwing Bart Houston in will make everything better. Maybe instead of wondering how much Joel Stave is limiting this offense, we should consider just where this unit would be without him.

Think Houston should stick at quarterback until you turn on him the second he has a bad game? Tweet your thoughts to @JFordBaer so he can quote tweet you while saying something glib to demean your intelligence.

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