Oct. 26, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- While Andrew Maxwell was Kirk Cousins’ understudy at Michigan State, Joel Stave was studying Cousins from afar at Wisconsin. As part of Stave’s freshman orientation to college football, he said, “I got to do a little bit of the Kirk Cousins simulation, not a lot, but I’d throw skelly.’’
Stave simulated Cousins in practice during the 7-on-7 passing drills the week of both games against the Spartans. He was utilized in “skelly’’ because he was a better thrower than the scout team quarterbacks, Lance Baretz and Drew McAdams, who worked against UW’s No. 1 defense.
Cousins, in general, piqued Stave’s curiosity because “he was such a good quarterback.’’ A three-year starter, Cousins finished his career as the all-time leading passer and winningest QB in Michigan State history. Given that resume, Stave couldn’t help but learn from watching Cousins.
“He was really consistent, especially when he played us,’’ Stave observed. “He didn’t do anything stupid with the ball. He was very accurate and he completed a lot of balls. It’s fun when you get a chance to watch guys like Kirk Cousins and Andrew Luck.’’
In preparing to face Oregon State last season, Stave viewed tape of the Beavers’ defense against Stanford and Luck, the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. “So not only do you watch the defense,’’ Stave said, “but you go through it (the tape) again because it’s an opportunity to watch a good quarterback.’’
Beyond Luck’s obvious skill set, especially his athleticism, Stave was most impressed with how smart he was with the ball. He filed it away, knowing that it would have application to his own game someday. Cousins’ consistency was also something that he took note of during his redshirt season.
Stave, who will be making his sixth career start Saturday, is still prey to the types of things most first-year players struggle with, namely inconsistency. “You don’t want to be the guy who’s really good one day, or even one drive, and can’t do it the next day, or the next drive,’’ he said.
That observation is consistent with his desire to do things the right way.
“It starts with practice,’’ Stave said, “I’ve got to be more consistent.’’
That point has been driven home by the coaching staff.
Stave, in turn, has tried to turn any negatives into positives.
“With mistakes comes a lot of learning -- a little give and take there, I guess,’’ he said, adding “I really didn’t take any scout reps or game prep reps last year. I would say I haven’t practice as well, but I’ve learned so much in practice. And that helps me going into each game.’’
During his Monday news conference, UW coach Bret Bielema alluded to Maxwell -- and the scrutiny that he has come under as a first-time starter -- in context with Stave. “I understand people want to come down on quarterbacks, just like they want to come down on mine,’’ he said.
Acknowledging the transition the Badgers and the Spartans have been undergoing offensively, Bielema was quick to add that both Stave and Maxwell are improving. “He (Stave) is going to make himself better,’’ he said. “And that’s the same thing, I’m sure, Michigan State is feeling.’’
Bielema pointed out that Stave had “three touchdown passes go off a guy’s hands’’ last Saturday against Minnesota and had two been caught than “everybody is going to be writing great things’’ about the quarterback position. Drops have definitely been a season-long storyline with Maxwell.
Sacks, though, have been a bigger point of emphasis this week with Stave who twice took the Badgers out of field goal range against Minnesota because of negative yard plays. “We saw last week where he needs to get rid of the football in certain situations,’’ Bielema said.
That could be more problematic against a Michigan State defense that leads the Big Ten in most categories and features proven edge rushers in Marcus Rush, aptly-enough, and William Gohlston. The Spartans can also heat up a quarterback with linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough.
Even though MSU has just six sacks in eight games -- Gohlston has one and five hurries -- Stave said, “They’re very good players (Rush and Gohlston) and you have to be aware of where they are and where the linebacker are. They bring a lot of pressure and we have to be smart in our protection calls.’’
Asked if there was a specific area that he was looking to fine-tune at this point of the season, Stave said, “Everything. I go back to consistency. I’m sorry for it being kind of a boring answer.’’
That’s the name of the game; something which has learned from other QBs, too.
Speaking of which -- name pronunciations -- it’s Stah-VEE, not Stah-VAY.
“It’s Norwegian,’’ said Stave, who’s accustomed to people calling him “Stayve.’’
“I got that at a lot of away games in high school,’’ he said.
So how does Stave address his senior tailback? Mon-TAY Ball? Or Mon-TEE Ball?
“I never started calling him Mon-TAY; I don’t know if he wanted me to or not,’’ he said.
Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland is pictured attempting to ward off a stiff-arm from Michigan State tailback Le’Veon Ball on the Spartans’ official athletics web site.
Bell rushed 18 times for 106 yards and one touchdown against the Badgers in the inaugural Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind.
“I played against John Clay for a couple of years,’’ Borland said of the former UW tailback. “Clay was bigger, maybe even faster in a straight line. But it’s amazing for Bell’s size how shifty he is, and how patient he is. When he runs, he’s really smooth. He’s a good athlete. I knew of him from high school.’’
Both are Ohioans. Bell is from Columbus, Borland is from Kettering.
“He’s a player,’’ Borland said.
Bell comes to mind when Borland thinks about Michigan State. And rightly so, especially this season, since he has 226 of the team’s 296 rushing attempts, and 210 more than anybody else.
What else does he think about?
“I think Big Ten, especially when we play them, it’s a prototypical Big Ten game,’’ Borland said. “It’s really physical. They like to run the ball and they do it the right way. They play really hard.’’
Borland can understand why most people will still focus on one play -- the Hail Mary in East Lansing -- from last season’s two games with the Spartans. “But they made a lot of plays on third down and that really cost us,’’ he said. “Third down is going to be important (Saturday).’’
In 2011, the Spartans were 8-of-16 and 7-of-13 on third down conversions against Wisconsin. If you go back to the 2010 game (also in East Lansing), they were 9-of-18. The last time the teams played in Madison -- 2009 -- Michigan State converted on just 3-of-10 third downs.
Linebacker Chris Norman, tailback Larry Caper, tight end Dion Sims and defensive tackle Tyler Hoover are the only current MSU players who have made a road trip to Camp Randall Stadium.
Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor led the defense with eight tackles in the ’09 game against Michigan State, and he also had an interception. Borland had a quarterback sack and four hurries.
Earlier this week, Bielema was disappointed to learn that neither Taylor nor Borland were among the 12 semi-finalists for the Butkus Award. Bielema simply couldn’t make sense of the snub.
“Our guys aren’t into awards and all that jazz,’’ he said, “but I can’t believe that would happen.’’
Borland shrugged it off.
“I’m not too concerned,’’ he said. “It’s nice to get recognition, but I don’t think we really care.’’
Still, Borland wondered about a selection process that would overlook Taylor. “I don’t know who’s in charge of those things, but Mike is one of the best linebackers in the country,’’ he said.
Any chance being slighted by the Butkus committee could serve as additional motivation for either Borland or Taylor against Michigan State? “Our motivation is just seeing their offense and guys like Bell,’’ Borland said. “That’s all the motivation we need. They’re a challenge.’’
It all goes back to the budding rivalry between the Badgers and Spartans. “Last year was special, two really memorable games,’’ Borland said. “There’s no love lost between the teams. This year is a new chapter, but it will be the same type of game.’’
Taking his cue from John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, UW offensive line coach Bart Miller has used that famous model to construct and personalize one of his own: a foundation for growth which underscores such things as discipline, accountability, pride and work ethic on its bottom tier.
“It was something that I introduced to them the very first day,’’ Miller said. “I gave each one of them my version -- the foundations of the offensive line -- and had a sign made and put up in my office and our meeting room. I refer to these principles and foundations almost on a daily basis.
“The model is based on Wooden’s pyramid, but each piece is different from his. This is geared to the things I believe make a great offensive line. I don’t know how many, if any at all, remember Wooden. I’m sure they know the name. I don’t know that they know the impact that he’s had on coaching.’’
Wisconsin’s starting right tackle, Rob Havenstein, was a high school basketball player so he knew where Miller was going with all of this. Did he remember Wooden? “Absolutely, he was the Wizard of Westwood when he coached at UCLA,’’ Havenstein said.
There was another reference point.
“I actually thought about that (the Pyramid of Success),’’ Havenstein said, “because our high school basketball team used to watch a 40-minute video with just Wooden talking. It was kind of cool but after seeing it three and four times, it was like, ‘We get it, we get it.’’’
Center Travis Frederick had heard of Wooden even though “I’m certainly not familiar with him.’’ Still, that didn’t take away from his appreciation of Miller’s teaching points. “It’s really portrays what he believes in,’’ he said, “and what we believe in as an offensive line.’’
Interpreting the model, Frederick said, “There are a lot of different things that build into what it takes to be a good O-line. Some of those things are more core than others. You have to start with a core if you’re going to be the best. You can’t start from the top, you have to work from the bottom-up.’’
That’s definitely where this group started: the bottom.
But they have continued to get better under Miller’s guidance.
“That’s coaching,’’ Bielema said. “It’s players that believe in what they’re asked to do.’’
Flexibility is part of the belief system -- the ability of multiple linemen to play multiple positions.
“A lot of us older guys have a real solid foundation on playing different positions,’’ said Frederick, who has started games at center and guard. “We were brought up on playing left (side) and right, tackle and guard, or guard and center. That gives us confidence to trust whoever is next to us.’’
Michigan State has the best defense that the Badgers have confronted this season. As such, it will be the ultimate test of an offensive line that has shown steady development and growth.
“They’re tough and sound and they’re well-coached,’’ Frederick said of the Spartans. “They have tremendous athletes and they’re going to play hard. It’s going to be a very physical game.’’
Since the last six games in the series have been decided by a combined total of 31 points, a Woodenism is appropriate: “It’s the little things that are vital. Little things make big things happen.’’