Wisconsin may be a heavy favorite to go back to the Big Ten Championship Game, but the Badgers haven't had the greatest of seasons this year. The inconsistencies have been especially glaring on offense, where they have looked amazing in some games and lousy in others.
Here's an unexpected twist, though: For as much as Wisconsin's offense is predicated on the quality of the offensive line and the running game, one of the biggest factors in Wisconsin's offensive success is its quarterback.
More specifically, the offense stalled out badly when Danny O'Brien was the starter early on in the season, hit its groove when Joel Stave was installed a few weeks in, then went straight back into the ditch when Stave went out with an apparent shoulder injury against Michigan State on Saturday.
Stave left the game after the first play from scrimmage of the second half after being sacked by William Gholston. Wisconsin was protecting a 7-3 lead at the time. From that point on, the Badgers managed just 29 yards and three points in regulation, then went backwards a yard and kicked a field goal in overtime before a Spartans touchdown ended the game.
The news only gets worse for Wisconsin, as Stave's shoulder injury is actually a clavicle injury—and that means bad news for his season. Here's a report from Jake Zimmermann, the sports director at WKOW in Madison.
It's confirmed. Joel Stave's family says the UW QB is out for the season with a broken collarbone. Expects to return for spring ball.— Jake Zimmermann (@Jake_Zimmermann) October 28, 2012
What will Wisconsin's record be in its last three regular season games without Joel Stave?
Yes, Wisconsin is still far ahead of the rest of the Leaders Division teams that are allowed to go to the conference title game. The Badgers are 3-2 in the conference, and of the other postseason-eligible Leaders Division teams, only Indiana has even one conference win at 1-3.
Here's where things get interesting, though. That's still only a 1.5-game lead for Wisconsin. And the Badgers have already had the luxury of playing doormats Purdue and Illinois—Indiana hasn't yet. Moreover, Indiana and Wisconsin haven't played yet. That's coming in two weeks. The two other teams Wisconsin hasn't played yet? Divisional titans Ohio State and Penn State to close out the season.
Wisconsin should still beat Indiana, of course, and if that happens there's nothing standing between the Badgers and another trip to the Big Ten Championship Game. But Wisconsin also should have beaten Northern Iowa by more than five points, should have scored more than seven points against Oregon State in that 10-7 loss and should have blown Utah State out of the water instead of scraping together a 16-14 win at home.
What's more, unless O'Brien suddenly turns into an effective quarterback, Wisconsin doesn't look like it stands a chance against whomever the Legends Division will send to the conference championship.
As it stands right now, Stave's broken collarbone is the single most significant injury in the Big Ten this year. Denard Robinson going out against Nebraska is a big deal too, but at least he is coming back.
On the flip side, there's really no telling if Wisconsin's momentum is coming back this season.