MADISON, WI - Despite the admittedly vanilla nature of his team and despite missing 6 likely starters on Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen and the 12,050 people in attendance were able to get some answers to key questions facing the Badgers in 2013.
The first question may have been why so vanilla, but that answer came quickly and bluntly from Andersen as he simply put it "Just it's on the Big Ten Network. That's the biggest reason."
So, while those in attendance never got to see the full packages of what this new look team can do, they at least got a look at what the basics of this team will look like in a new 3-4 defense and the leadership of Andy Ludwig at offensive coordinator.
Usually all eyes are glued to the quarterback position anyway, but perhaps no question in Madison is bigger than what was going on at the quarterback position. Entering the spring game it was a two-horse race to see who would challenge incoming JUCO transfer Tanner McEvoy come the fall. That race featured sixth year senior Curt Phillips and redshirt sophomore Joel Stave putting themselves above the rest of a crowded field.
On Saturday it was Stave that stood out more than Phillips in the 61-47 win for the Cardinal (defense) over the White (offense). He went 15-20 for 161 yards and threw for a touchdown (one of just two total for the offense on the day). It wasn't just his stats that were impressive either as Stave's ability to command the offense stood out head-and-shoulders above the others.
"I thought Joel was poised today," said Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen following the game. "I thought he it wasn't perfect, but it doesn't have to be perfect. They caught the ball good for him. I thought we were getting in and out of our routes better. Protection was much better."
Stave also managed to show that he has the ability to throw the deep ball and with more work on timing and with Jared Abbrederis, who was one of the 6 held out yesterday, back on the field come fall it's even less of a worry. He also showed that he's building a good connection with his wide receivers.
"I thought the ball was coming out pretty well today," said Stave postgame. "I felt pretty good with the reads and everything. I felt like I was reading things pretty clean and making good throws."
Phillips wasn't bad either going 8-13 for for 82 yards with his most impressive strike coming to a man fighting for the No. 2 wide receiver spot, Jordan Fredrick. He hit Fredrick just as he made his break back towards the sideline on a weak side out about 15 yards up field, but outside of that Phillips wasn't one to air the ball out and when he did it was clear he wasn't in sync with his wide receivers.
Of course this is just one of 15 practices and while it's worth noting that Stave performed the better of the two when the eyes of public and a gameday atmosphere is in play, it can't be the sole determining factor on who ends up winning the battle come this fall.
"I hate to look back at just one day, one performance, but I think this last week, if I look at both those two, we're moving in the right direction with just feeling comfortable with what's going on," said Andersen.
Defensively the Badgers were missing so many starters it was hard to read much into what was happening, but it was a great sign seeing youngsters standing out. Guys like true freshman Sojourn Shelton at cornerback and Vince Biegel at linebacker only helped their cases for seeing the field more and more with performances like they had on Saturday.
Biegel had perhaps the best day of anyone on the field, recording 4 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks - including one of them for a safety - in helping lead his side of the ball to victory. Shelton nearly had a pick or two and as someone that's only been in the system for all of four months or so he played much more like a guy who's been in the system for four years.
Overall, the other big theme in Madison was change - from a scoring system that allowed the defense to score seven points on what would've been a conventional safety all the way to a dance-off between fans and players this wasn't your Bielema era attitude at all.
It showed in the players attitude from start to finish of this one as both "teams" stayed in the game from start to finish and it showed in the fact that the fans stayed with the action from start to finish as well.
At the end of the day, nothing could've been more important than Gary Andersen and his staff making sure they put their own stamp on the program to the fans and they accomplished that in spades.