After three ACL tears to the same knee, QB Curt Phillips will get his chance to start for the Badgers.
By JESSE TEMPLE FS Wisconsin
MADISON, Wis. — Curt Phillips has waited an awfully long time to run onto a field as the starting quarterback at the University of Wisconsin. On Saturday, he'll finally get his shot.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema announced Thursday night that Phillips would indeed start for the Badgers against Indiana. Bielema initially declined to name a starter earlier in the week, although word quickly spread that Phillips was taking snaps with the first-team offense ahead of teammate Danny O'Brien.
Neither quarterback was made available to the media this week, but Bielema said Phillips, obviously, was thrilled with the opportunity.
"It means a lot," Bielema said. "Any time you sign with a school when you're a quarterback, your dream is to be a starting quarterback. He unfortunately has battled through a lot. But the key point there is he's put himself back on top, and I'm really looking forward for him to play."
Phillips arrived at Wisconsin back in 2008 as one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country. The Kingsport, Tenn., native was named the Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior after tallying 4,148 yards passing and rushing with 57 total touchdowns. He took a redshirt season as a freshman and appeared in five games in 2009, when he completed 7 of 12 passes for 65 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.
Then came a devastating series of ACL injuries that not only buried Phillips on the depth chart, but also raised legitimate questions about his ability to ever play quarterback again. Phillips tore the ACL in his right knee three times and did not play in 2010 and 2011.
Bielema said he never told Phillips to quit football, although he quietly wondered if his quarterback would return to form well enough to play. It wasn't until last winter, when Phillips was working back from his third ACL surgery, that Bielema knew he had a chance to impact Wisconsin's team on the field this season.
Phillips' story of perseverance has earned him the respect of teammates, and Bielema said he hoped players would rally around Phillips in his first career start.
"Just a tremendous kid," Bielema said. "I think that's what gets all the guys around him very excited."
This season, Phillips has appeared briefly in two games but has yet to throw a pass. He will start in place of redshirt freshman Joel Stave, who broke his left collarbone against Michigan State on Oct. 27 during a 16-13 overtime loss.
O'Brien, a Maryland transfer who started the first three games of the season, will serve as the No. 2 quarterback. He entered in relief of Stave during the third quarter against Michigan State and struggled to move the offense, completing 5 of 11 passes for 44 yards.
Bielema indicated that Phillips separated himself from O'Brien in practice last Wednesday and Thursday during the team's bye week. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Canada broke the news to O'Brien earlier this week that he would not be starting against Indiana.
"He's handled it really well," Bielema said. "I give a lot of credit to him. He's a strong kid. Obviously, he's just going to wait for his opportunity. He had his opportunity against Michigan State. Now we're going to give Curt his."
Despite the knee injuries, Phillips is considered more of a mobile quarterback, and that could change the game plan on Saturday. Bielema also did not rule out the possibility of somehow using both quarterbacks.
"Obviously, he brings a little bit of a different skill set," Bielema said of Phillips. "You've all seen what he can do. So it's an opportunity for him. It may not be a traditional Wisconsin offense, seeing some different things, but it's obviously something we're excited to see."
If all goes according to plan, Phillips could actually be back to challenge for the starting quarterback role next season. Bielema said both Phillips and defensive end Brendan Kelly had applied for a sixth year of eligibility with the NCAA. Kelly played three games in 2008 before sustaining an injury and missed the entire 2010 season with an injury.
"The experiences I've had, both of them should be a textbook case to get a sixth year, but you never know when you're dealing with the NCAA," Bielema said. "I've seen guys get approved in other places I didn't think had a chance. And I've seen guys get denied. We'll just kind of hold our breath."
Saturday's game is critical in the Leaders Division race of the Big Ten. If Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten) wins, it will be guaranteed of a second straight trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship. Indiana (4-5, 2-3) will hold the tiebreaker against Wisconsin with a victory and two games remaining in the regular season.
Although Phillips hasn't played a full game since tearing his ACL three times, Bielema said he wasn't concerned past injuries would affect Phillips against Indiana.
"What I've seen of Curt -- his strength, his ability, his mental toughness -- give me a lot of confidence in what he's going to do Saturday," Bielema said.