Wisconsin (3-1) at times looked the team most expected heading into the 2012 season. Then there were parts of the game where the Badgers looked like the team that struggled each of the first three games of non-conference play.
Stave led the Badgers to a win in his first career start.
Following a 37-26 win over UTEP (1-3) on Saturday, it led Wisconsin Head Coach Bret Bielema to the conclusion that every game this season, will be a battle for the Badgers.
"I told this group in the locker room, nothing comes easy to this group," Bielema said following the game. "I was very excited for today to get here because I thought we would truly find out what kind of guys we have."
After scoring just a combined 52 points in the first three games of the season, Wisconsin's offense started out sluggish, but fought their way to 423 total yards of offense, on their way to 37 points on the day.
Leading the Badgers was Freshman Quarterback Joel Stave, who made his first career start as a Badger. Stave passed 17 times, completing 12, for 210 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
“I felt pretty comfortable,” he said. “The first couple of plays, my heart was pounding. I wanted to get into a rhythm, but I felt pretty good out there.”
With Junior Wide Receiver Jared Abbrederis back in the line up, Stave was able to stretch the field vertically, keeping the UTEP defense honest at all times.
Stave twice found Abbrederis deep on gains of 60-yards, and 47-yards respectively, with the 47-yard throw a touchdown pass to give the Badgers a 23-6 lead late in the first half.
The defender fell down on the play, leaving Abbrederis wide open. At the moment there's only one thing the junior receiver was worried about.
White had two rushing touchdowns.
“Catch the ball,” he said. “There’s a lot of times where you’re so wide open and those can be the hardest."
Wisconsin's offensive production wasn't just a surprise because of the fact Stave was making his first career start. The Badgers also lost Senior Running Back Montee Ball in the first half to a head injury.
Taking Ball's carries were junior James White and freshman Melvin Gordon. The duo combined for 177 yards rushing and three touchdown against the Miners.
“It felt good just to get out there, score touchdowns," said White. "Those are hard to come by.
"With Montee going down, I knew I had to step up. It’s a little more weight on my back, but it’s the same thing that I do every day.”
Wisconsin fell behind 6-0 in the first quarter after UTEP Quarterback Nick Lamaison and Wide Receiver Michael Edwards connected on a 39-yard touchdown pass, beating Senior Cornerback Devin Smith on the play.
Smith would make up for that error in a big way. On the PAT attempt by the Miners, Konrad Zabzebski got his hands on the ball, which landed right in the arms of Smith, who returned it all the way back for two points.
The points cut the deficit to four, but the momentum from that play was far greater. After the defensive PAT, the Badgers rattled off 21 straight points, scoring on three of their next four drives.
Gordon ran for 112 yards against the Miners.
“I was the outside rusher,” Smith explained. “We had a lot of force between the guard and the tackle on the left side. Hearing the thud, just being aware of where the ball is.
“I knew I pretty much just had to beat the kicker and the other big guys. I was able to just look at the jumbotron at the end and see how far they were behind me.”
Wisconsin's offense stalled again at the beginning of the second half, which allowed UTEP to slowly crawl back into the game. A 13 play, 75 yard drive, which ended with a Xay Williams 8-yard touchdown run, put the Minors back with in striking distance at 23-16 late in the third quarter.
The Badger offense was shut out the entire third quarter, and after UTEP climbed within four after a 43-yard field goal from Steven Valdez, Wisconsin kicked it into gear led by an unlikely source.
Stave calmly came back into the game after the offense had virtually nothing going in the second half and made some clutch plays. The freshman completed both of his pass attempts on the drive, each going for 14-yards which eventually set up a 2-yard touchdown run by James White on 3rd and goal.
“He didn’t really have to say anything,” Junior Center Travis Frederick said about the final drive. “That’s what I find interesting about Joel and that’s what I really like about Joel.
"He comes up there and he doesn’t have to say anything for us to know what he’s feeling. He’s a guy that comes out very calm, cool, and collected. He’s confident, he calls the plays, and we go.”
On the ensuing kickoff, UTEP return man Michael Edwards fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Jake Stengel. That set up a 26-yard touchdown run from Melvin Gordon on the very next play.
Borland had 12 tackles and two sacks.
Gordon carried the ball just eight times against the Miners, but ran for a team-high 112 yards.
“I just think about making plays for the team,” Gordon said. “That was the big thing in my head. With Montee going down, I didn’t want the team to feel like we were out.
“The coaches have found ways to get me on the field. Outside or inside, regardless, I have to make something happen.”
A late touchdown by the Miners cut the lead down to 37-26 in favor of Wisconsin. UTEP then tried for the onside kick, which was wisely knocked out of bounds by Chris Borland, who recorded 12 tackles and two sacks on the day.
Wisconsin finished non-conference play with a 3-1 record overall. Now a big test ahead of them awaits as the Badgers head to Nebraska next Saturday for a highly anticipated rematch in the Big Ten opener.
"They're 3-1," said Bielema. "It's not where we want to be, but I told our guys the other day, going into this week, we were 2-1, and it could be 3-0, but it could have been 0-3.
"It's a tremendous challenge to go on the road and win the way you want to in this league, so that's an opportunity we have in front of us.
"We get better every week, the team has the right attitude."