Stave goes out a winner

Editor's note: Zach Heilprin covers Wisconsin football and basketball for ESPN Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. -- A winner.

That’s how Joel Stave went out in his 41st and final start at quarterback for the Wisconsin Badgers. And it’s the way he deserved to go out. For all that he’s fought through during his career in Madison -- some self-inflicted and some not -- Stave deserved to walk off the field at Qualcomm Stadium a winner. And he did, as the Badgers beat No. 25 USC 23-21 to capture the Holiday Bowl title on Wednesday night.

For everyone that screamed at the top of their lungs over the past four years for someone -- anyone -- other than Stave to be the starting quarterback, the victory, which included him earning Offensive Most Valuable Player honors, should serve as evidence of the type of player he is. It’s far from flashy, and has been cringe-worthy at times, but no one can ever call him soft. Bleeding profusely from the bridge of his nose after getting stepped on in the fourth quarter, Stave missed just three plays, and with a cotton swab stuck up his nose to slow the bleeding, led Wisconsin on a game-winning drive that ended with a 29-yard field goal. It was truly the epitome of Stave’s career. He got knocked down a lot -- literally and figuratively -- but always managed to get up.

The win, and likely the idea that Stave is now the all-time leader at UW in that category, will bother his detractors. But the venom spit his way -- and his family’s way -- on a regular basis while in Madison shouldn’t and doesn’t matter to him. Where some 18- to 22-year olds would lash out in response to the hateful things said and written about them, Stave never did. He could have crushed Gary Andersen and the previous coaching staff publically for how they handled him during their two years, but it’s just not who he is. He’s a guy that will simply smile and say everyone has a right to their opinion.

Despite winning 31 games there were those that tweeted Wednesday morning that they were thankful this would be the last day Stave would be called the starting quarterback at Wisconsin. It’s a mindset that is utterly ridiculous when you dig into what the Greenfield native did in his time under center. Was he Russell Wilson or Scott Tolzien or even John Stocco? No. But he certainly did more good than bad, and he leaves as the second-leading passer in school history in all of the important categories, including passing yards, touchdowns and completions.

And Stave likely saved his best for last, throwing for 217 yards and a score against the Trojans, posting the second-highest (92.9) QBR in his career against a team from a Power 5 conference. He was accurate, decisive and didn’t make the one big mistake that has plagued him at points during his time running UW’s offense. His two passes on the game-winning drive were sniper-like strikes to Austin Traylor and Troy Fumagalli. It was a moment where Wisconsin needed him the most and he delivered, helping the Badgers earn their second straight bowl victory.

The game provided an opportunity for Stave to go out the right way, something he was unable to do in his final home contest at Camp Randall Stadium against Northwestern. Instead of feeling robbed of a win and getting knocked out of the game like he did against the Wildcats, Stave was instrumental in getting a win over one of most prestigious programs in college football – a performance that even the staunchest of Stave haters must admit was impressive to watch.

The win is unlikely change most people’s perception of Stave’s career, good or bad. There’s just too much prior evidence for both sides of the argument that one game won’t impact what they believe his legacy to be. And that legacy is different for everybody -- fans, coaches, teammates and even Stave himself. It’s certainly something that will be talked and argued about in the next few weeks, likely resurfacing in five to 10 years and probably even when another quarterback isn’t perceived to be playing up to the lofty standards some will have set for them.

But in the end, every conversation about Stave must circle back to a simple question. Did he win games? And the resounding answer is yes, more than anybody that’s ever taken a snap for Wisconsin. That’s a legacy that Stave will take.

Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com
@zachheilprin | zheilprin@espnmadison.com