MADISON, Wis. – Having the best seat in the house to watch Wisconsin's three running backs weave their way to the end zone, quarterback Joel Stave can't help but acknowledge how Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement have eased some of the offense's burden.
Stave also knows it's hard to beat teams when the passing game is struggling — especially on the road against a defense like that of No. 4 Ohio State, the Badgers' opponent Saturday night.
"They're talented, physical and good athletes," Stave said. "We're going to have to play good if we want to beat them and prepare well, too."
Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) is tops in the conference and third in the nation with 349.8 rushing yards through its first four games; numbers generated thanks to Gordon, who has rushed for at least 140 rushing yards in every game this season and leads the nation with 624 yards and an 11.8 per carry average.
The passing game has been a different story. Wisconsin ranks 90th in the country in passing offense (198.0 yards per game) and Stave has failed to throw for more than 220 yards in his four starts, surprising numbers considering the Badgers have given up only three sacks through four games.
"We need to improve in every aspect of our play," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "(We need) more pass completions, more consistency, repetitive accuracy needs to improve. He's doing a lot of things well but he needs to improve."
Winning a fall camp quarterback competition against sixth-year senior Curt Phillips, Stave at times has played better than a sophomore quarterback with only 10 career starts. He has a 202.9 passing efficiency in the red zone, going 14 for 17 for 87 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions this season, and Wisconsin is 8-2 in games he's started.
But at times he looks his age, failing to throw a touchdown pass in Wisconsin's 41-10 conference-opening win against Purdue and struggling to move the offense consistently.
And with three of Wisconsin's offensive stars — tight end Jacob Pedersen and receivers Jeff Duckworth and Kenzel Doe — questionable for this weekend, Stave is expecting the Buckeyes' defense to load the box to try and slow the Badgers' rushing attack.
"With how successful the running game has been, I can see why teams would want to do that," Stave said. "If they're going to bring safeties down and we have a chance to throw it over the top, that's what you want as a quarterback is an opportunity to throw the deep ball and make the big play."
The deep ball has been missing from Stave's arsenal over the last two weeks. Excluding screen passes, Wisconsin has completed only two passes over 25 yards while misfiring on several big-play opportunities; missed chances Stave has spent the better part of this week's prep work trying to correct.
"I just have to make sure my feet are right," Stave said. "We worked on that some to make sure your feet are in the right position to make every throw you need to make."
Ohio State linebacker Curtis Grant said the Buckeyes need to bring pressure on Stave, whatever the numbers might show.
"If he gets time back there, he'll make a play," Grant said. "Us as a defense, we have to get some pressure on them and stop the run."
While Stave has drawn a lot of ire for his three interceptions through four games and inconsistency moving the offense, coach Gary Andersen said part of the blame was on the Badgers' receivers for not running the right routes with the right spacing or the right timing.
"No one wants to talk about that," Andersen said. "They want to talk about how the quarterback threw a pick. There's things that go into it that many times are missed. The offensive line, we want to get better. We want to run better routes, cleaner routes, crisper routes. We want to make sure we put them in a position, as coaches, to be able to execute.
"Is the throwing game a concern? Yes. Is it alarming? I would say no, but it's a concern, and we want to get better because great running teams, if they have the ability to get those safeties to back off just a little bit, it really helps."
While Saturday will be just his 11th start, Stave does have road game experience in hostile environments. He led Wisconsin to a 27-10 second-half lead at Nebraska last season and threw for 120 yards on Wisconsin's final two drives at Arizona State, putting the Badgers in position to kick a game-tying field goal before the game's controversial ending.
"I don't know if we're trying to prove anything to anyone except ourselves," said Stave. "We know we can be a balanced offense and we can throw the ball and run the ball. As long as we're doing that, we're happy."