PASADENA, Calif. — Two-minute drives and Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips had become synonymous during his brief stint as the team’s starter. Facing dire situations against tough Ohio State and Penn State defenses last month, Phillips led the Badgers down the field for game-tying touchdown drives to force overtime.
So when Wisconsin trailed Stanford on Tuesday evening by six points with just a few minutes remaining, it seemed reasonable to believe Phillips would work his magic one last time. One more march down the field, and Phillips would go down in Wisconsin lore for pulling a Rose Bowl victory out of the hat.
It didn’t happen.
Phillips’ final pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted at Stanford’s 42-yard-line with 2:03 remaining in the game, and Stanford went on to defeat Wisconsin, 20-14, to capture the Rose Bowl. The throw, intended for Badgers tight end Jacob Pedersen, never had a chance.
“It was a bit of a miscommunication between us, but I saw him and I’ve got to put it on him,” Phillips said. “It just wasn’t a good throw.”
Phillips, a fifth-year senior, finished the game completing 10 of 16 passes for 83 yards with one touchdown and one interception. His biggest throw, outside of the turnover, was a four-yard touchdown strike to receiver Jordan Fredrick with 19 seconds remaining in the first half, which trimmed Wisconsin’s deficit to 17-14. But his inability to find much room downfield ultimately hurt the Badgers’ attempt at a comeback, as they lost their third consecutive Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave, meanwhile, was much better suited for the long ball but attempted just one pass against Stanford. Stave, the team’s starter earlier in the season, was cleared to participate this week after breaking his collarbone Oct. 27 against Michigan State, and coaches insisted he would play in some capacity on Tuesday.
“It wasn’t really a set number of plays,” Stave said. “I would get a few plays. I wasn’t sure what they would be. I’m happy I got a chance to be out there, though.”
Stave entered for Wisconsin’s third offensive series of the first half with the Badgers trailing, 14-0, and nearly hit a stirring touchdown pass to receiver Jared Abbrederis on his only toss. Stave baited the defense with a play-action pass on first-and-10 from Stanford’s 34-yard-line and lobbed a perfect spiral into the back left corner of the end zone, but the ball was knocked away at the last second.
“It was basically play-action trying to take a shot down the field, and that’s what I did,” Stave said. “I turned around, threw it, and hoped for the best.”
Despite the throw, Stave never returned, and the passing game remained nonexistent. Phillips, for his part, said he wasn’t aware of how much Stave would be included in the game plan and expected it to be dictated by the flow of the game.
Badgers offensive coordinator Matt Canada defended the move to keep Phillips in for most of the game, particularly the end.
“It’s hard,” Canada said. “They’re very good up front. The fact that he can move, he’s played a lot of football out here lately. He deserved a chance to compete and win the game. The last pass was too bad, but he really played pretty well.”
Considering where Phillips began the season, his presence on the field at all during the Rose Bowl was remarkable. During fall camp, Phillips was Wisconsin’s third-string quarterback behind Danny O’Brien and Stave. O’Brien started three games before being benched in favor of Stave, who quickly established himself as a confident signal-caller. With Stave in charge, the Badgers went 4-2 and a stagnant offense sprung to life.
Then, Stave broke his collarbone, and Phillips took advantage during the following bye week to edge O’Brien for the starting role. He improved significantly in each game and started four games before the Rose Bowl.
Phillips made his first college start against Indiana on Nov. 10 and completed 4 of 7 passes for 41 yards with his first career touchdown. He then completed a career-best 14 of 25 passes for 154 yards with a touchdown against Ohio State and followed up that performance with 191 passing yards against Penn State.
For a guy who missed the 2010 and 2011 seasons while recovering from torn ACL injuries, it was an inspiring story — one Phillips hoped to carry all the way to a Rose Bowl victory. Teammates said Phillips was confident as ever as he led Wisconsin to midfield on what proved to be the team’s final drive of the season.
“I think he felt very similar to the way he always feels,” Badgers center Travis Frederick said. “He sounded that way to me. Just very even-keel and ready to go.
“I think he’s done a tremendous job through everything that he’s been through and then coming in halfway through the year and taking over. He’s grown a lot in the last couple of years.”
The battle to be Wisconsin’s starting quarterback next season will be crowded. Phillips is expected to be granted a sixth year of eligibility after petitioning the NCAA. In addition to Phillips, Stave and O’Brien, freshman Bart Houston will be in the mix. Phillips also indicated that redshirt senior Jon Budmayr would return after missing this season with nerve damage in his throwing elbow.
In other words, Phillips will have his work cut out for him if he hopes to lead Wisconsin to a fourth straight Rose Bowl appearance.
“We’ll have five or six quarterbacks competing for us,” Phillips said. “There won’t be many reps to go around.”