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The complicated legacy of Wisconsin QB Joel Stave

With 29 career wins, Joel Stave is third among active FBS QBs and can tie the Wisconsin mark for all-time wins with a victory over Northwestern on Saturday. So why isn't that good enough for Badgers fans? Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports

MADISON, Wis. -- Bryan is a 2013 University of Wisconsin graduate, and his ties to the school's football program remain close. He still lives in Madison and watches every game, reveling in the team's success and anguishing over close losses. Seven Saturdays a year, he proudly wears the white, game-worn 2012 Rose Bowl jersey of his favorite player, shuffling through the Camp Randall Stadium concourse with the last name "Stave" stitched into the back.

By now, as time winds down on the player's college football career, Bryan has prepared for the obnoxious ramblings from some Badgers fans. Wearing that No. 2 jersey, with that last name? Good luck making it through a game without hearing at least a few snide comments.

"I always wear his jersey on game day, so a lot of people tell me how much Stave sucks," Bryan said. "Then I tell them who I am and they're like, 'Oh, I'm so sorry.' It's fairly common."

What nobody realizes is that they're talking to Bryan Stave, the older brother of Wisconsin starting quarterback Joel Stave. And if Joel Stave's own brother hears dissenting words for simply supporting one of the university's own, imagine what is being said everywhere else.

"I hear a decent amount on Saturdays at home games, even where I feel like I'll get heckled as much at home as I do on the road," Joel Stave said. "It hurts a little bit sometimes when you get it from the people who you'd like to think would be supporting you."

On Saturday, Bryan will don his brother's jersey one last time at home while hoping to avoid the refrains that have become so prevalent. Joel Stave, meanwhile, will run out of the tunnel at Camp Randall Stadium on senior day, when No. 25 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) plays No. 20 Northwestern (8-2, 4-2) at 3:30 p.m. ET. He will try to continue doing something that has gone underappreciated by a faction of the fan base during his entire career: win games.

Stave has started 38 career games at Wisconsin, and his record is 29-9. On Saturday, he will have the opportunity to tie Brooks Bollinger for the all-time program record for victories by a starting quarterback. Only two other active quarterbacks in the FBS -- Michigan State's Connor Cook and Stanford's Kevin Hogan -- have won more career games.

Yet Stave also will undoubtedly leave as one of the program's most divisive figures in recent memory, the subject of constant criticism from fans who desperately want to see somebody -- anybody -- take snaps under center other than him.

The question is: What has Joel Stave done to deserve all this?

The Russell Wilson effect

In the summer of 2011, a graduate transfer named Russell Wilson arrived on campus from North Carolina State carrying as much fan-fueled and media hype as any quarterback in Wisconsin history. Over the span of less than six months, Wilson would exceed everybody's expectations, becoming a beloved player adopted by many fans as their own.

During his lone season at Wisconsin, Wilson set single-season school passing records for yards (3,175), completions (225), touchdowns (33) and pass efficiency (191.8), which was an NCAA record. He threw only four interceptions and led the team to 11 victories with a Rose Bowl appearance while playing with the most explosive offense in Badgers history. Now, he is an NFL starting quarterback in Seattle who has played in two Pro Bowls, two Super Bowls and won one championship.

The man ultimately tasked with replacing Wilson was home-state walk-on Joel Stave, whose only scholarship offer out of high school was from Western Michigan.

"No question, when Russell Wilson had his season, it set the bar for anyone to follow at an impossibly high height," said Mike Heller, a sports broadcaster in Madison for nearly 25 years who hosts a statewide sports talk radio show. "Joel wasn't going to achieve that."

In Stave's second season in 2013, he threw 22 touchdown passes, which was the second-best mark in program history. It was still 11 touchdowns behind Wilson's record.

Heller acknowledged Wilson was the first -- and only -- truly great quarterback Wisconsin's program has ever had. And if not for Wilson, fans likely would view Stave through a difference lens. He has passed for 7,110 career yards, which is third at Wisconsin behind Darrell Bevell and John Stocco. His winning percentage is third behind Scott Tolzien and Stocco. And his 47 touchdown passes are tied for the second-most with Stocco behind Bevell's 59.

Jumble any of those quarterbacks together, along with Bollinger and Jim Sorgi, Heller said, and Stave is no better or worse than any of them. But following Wilson has changed perceptions of what is expected, however unfair that might be.

"You've got to thank Russell Wilson for being almost perfect when he was here for a year," Badgers wide receiver Jordan Fredrick said. "That doesn't help. I think people expect perfection, which is frustrating. Because one mistake, and Joel gets almost crucified."

Since Wilson left, Wisconsin's record is 36-15 overall. Only Ohio State and Michigan State have better records among Big Ten teams during that span. Wisconsin has played in a New Year's Day bowl game every season since 2010 and has made appearances in three of the last four Big Ten championship games. No one can argue Stave hasn't been a big part of the team's success the past four seasons.

"You look at some other schools, you look at somewhere like Illinois, what they would do for a season like that," Stave said. "But that's become kind of the norm here. I think people maybe don't appreciate as much the effort and the work that goes into winning nine games, winning 11 games. Those are good seasons."

Stave's brother, Bryan, offers a less politically correct perspective.

"Most of the fan base is just complete idiots," he said. "That's how it is in any sport, but especially at kind of the spoiled culture that is Wisconsin football. You get a lot of people that know very little about the game and have no experience or ability playing it themselves."

The backup quarterback dilemma

The most popular quarterback in football is the backup quarterback, and Stave has been on both sides of the equation at Wisconsin. When he began his playing career, he was a redshirt freshman most fans knew little about. Yet they were willing to give him a chance because he was someone to pin all their hopes on without much reason to gripe.

Stave recalls the way in which he was treated soon after he replaced Danny O'Brien at halftime of an early-season game against Utah State in 2012. He completed only 2 of 6 passes for 15 yards. In fact, Stave actually did almost nothing to contribute to the win other than hand the ball off. One week later, in his first career start against UTEP, Stave threw an interception just before halftime and ran into the tunnel while students chanted his name and cheered.

"I'm thinking, 'Man, this is pretty cool. Everyone loves me. This is great,' " Stave said. "And they'll turn on you that fast. As soon as people get used to you, they go, 'Oh, well he's not that good. Let's move on to the next guy.' It's the nature of the fan, I guess. They're just always looking for the next-best thing. ... I've been fighting an uphill battle it feels like a lot of the time here."

Now, backup quarterback Bart Houston has become the object of fans' affection, garnering the same benefit of the doubt for his mistakes that Stave once held. Heller said calls for Stave to be benched in favor of Houston skyrocketed after Wisconsin lost 10-6 against Iowa on Oct. 3, a game in which Stave committed four turnovers, including a calamitous fourth-quarter fumble at the goal line after his offensive lineman stepped on him. The team also rushed for a season-low 86 yards and lost top receiver Alex Erickson to a concussion. Iowa remains undefeated this season, and Stave has been blamed as the person responsible for costing Wisconsin a Big Ten West title.

"It was bubbling below the surface," Heller said. "Sometimes people just want change. He's been the starter for a while. So they've seen him. They understand some limitations, and I think some of those limitations probably bother them. So when the Iowa game happened, everything fell on Joel. And it was unrealistic."

Of course, there are still legitimate complaints to be had about Stave's on-field performance. His inability to escape pocket pressure often leads to off-balance throws that wobble or are intercepted. And his 34 career interceptions are the second-most in program history behind Bevell's 39.

"The thing with Joel that's so frustrating is he'll play a game like he did against Rutgers," his brother, Bryan, said. "He hit a deep up and out on the first drive, a couple of really nice third down throws into tight windows.

"And then he'll make a bonehead, horrible interception that gets returned for a touchdown. People are just looking to hate on something. So you play a really good game up to that point. You make that one mistake and then it's, 'Oh, same old Stave.' Just looking for something to poke at."

Badgers coach Paul Chryst has reiterated numerous times that Stave has been the best quarterback in practice and provides the team with the greatest chance to win games. Stave's career record in Big Ten games is 21-5, the best winning percentage of any quarterback with at least 15 starts in school history. Bollinger, who holds the all-time wins record, was 16-12 in league games from 1999-2002.

Still, Stave's teammates cannot escape talk about all the things Stave is not, even several hours away from campus. Houston has a better arm. D.J. Gillins has more mobility. Alex Hornibrook has more upside.

"There's been numerous times where I'll just be out," Badgers left tackle Tyler Marz said. "The conversation kind of turns to quarterback. They'll mention Joel, and then they'll start to mention other names. Like, 'Why aren't they getting a shot?' I've really learned in my position here, the outside world doesn't know what goes on here. Sometimes you kind of just have to bite your tongue.

"For me, it's kind of motivating to see all the criticism that he gets. It's also kind of irritating because it's like the kid's done nothing but good things. It's bogus, in my opinion. It's ridiculous. You look on Twitter and you see all these comments about throwing someone else in there. It's like, what has Joel done to really lose the job?

A legacy unlike any other

The record Stave is approaching has been on his mind in some fashion for the better part of four seasons. Maybe it was naivety, Stave acknowledges now. But the week coaches informed him he had earned his first career start against UTEP on Sept. 22, 2012, he dug into the football program's record books. There, at the top of the all-time wins list was Bollinger's 30 victories, and surpassing the mark became Stave's holy grail. After each victory this season, Stave and his brother savor discussions about having moved one step closer.

"That's one that I'd really like to get," Stave said. "It's pretty cool that I'm right on the doorstep of it now."

He had no idea the road that lay ahead when he quietly told himself he might be able to break that record. He has played under four different offensive coordinators and three head coaches in five seasons and earned the starting quarterback job on three occasions. Stave has not started 13 games during his career, either because of injury or coaching decisions. He endured a highly publicized mental block that wrecked his throwing mechanics the first month of last season after Tanner McEvoy was named the starting quarterback instead. Stave won back the job by Week 6 and led the team to seven straight victories and a Big Ten West title.

This season has been especially validating for Stave. There was a previous perception Stave needed merely to be a game manager while the Badgers' powerful running attack took over. In 2012 and 2014, tailbacks Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon each won the Doak Walker Award for the nation's best running back.

This year, however, Wisconsin's rushing offense ranks only 88th nationally, and the team is averaging more passes per game than any year in program history. Star tailback Corey Clement has battled a sports hernia injury and played in one full game. Three projected preseason offensive line starters are injured, and Stave has been without his top tight end and No. 2 receiver. Yet he has helped guide the Badgers to eight victories, including a current five-game winning streak. He became the first quarterback in school history to win a game while throwing at least 50 times earlier this season against Nebraska, showing the Badgers can win because of him and not in spite of him, as some insist.

It has taken Stave time to gain better perspective of his place at Wisconsin and required conversations with others, including Tolzien, who played for the Badgers from 2006-10 and is now a backup quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. The overriding message: be comfortable with your own abilities and don't worry about what others think of you or who should play.

"It seems like incredibly important and such a big deal right now," Stave said. "But by next year, it's going to be on to a new guy who you want to yell at and get the next guy in there. There's going to be another huge recruit who comes in, and he's going to be the new savior until he plays. And then everyone's going to want the next guy. It's just the way the game goes."

Chryst noted teammates and coaches have profound respect for their starting quarterback. And Stave said he hopes fans will appreciate the way he carried himself during his career. If they don't, there is nothing he can do to change their perceptions.

At this point, it is a legacy Stave has no choice but to accept.

"He's got one hell of a story," Fredrick said. "It's really true. For him to beat that wins record, which he will, it's going to be that storybook ending you know he deep down wants just to shut people up."