Bielema remains silent on starting quarterback
MADISON, Wis. — Seven weeks ago, Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema played coy with the media when asked to name his starting quarterback for the team's game that Saturday against UTEP.
"They know what's going on," he said at the time. "You won't talk to them, but they know."
On Monday, you could've taken the tape from that press conference and pressed repeat. Although the players are different this time around, the answer was not.
Bielema wouldn't reveal which quarterback would start this Saturday's game against Indiana: Danny O'Brien or Curt Phillips. Both are listed as co-starters on the first-team depth chart, released on Monday.
"I know where we're going to go," Bielema said. "Probably our kids will know Tuesday moving forward. We'll keep the quarterbacks off limits."
The change at quarterback comes in the aftermath of a season-ending injury to redshirt freshman Joel Stave, who suffered a broken left collarbone Oct. 27 against Michigan State. Stave edged O'Brien for the starting job seven weeks earlier against UTEP and started six games.
The decision as to which player will start is not an easy one. O'Brien, a Maryland transfer, started the first three games of the season, but his inconsistency and inability to control the football led to his benching. O'Brien also struggled when he saw action for the final series against Nebraska and in relief of Stave against Michigan State.
This season, O'Brien has completed 52 of 86 passes for 523 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
"He brings experience in a system that we already have," Bielema said. "I think Danny understands the dynamics of a football game, how you've got to be able to convert on third downs. I think he understands the importance of ball security now more than ever.
"One thing that we have continued to stress with him is that every play matters, every down matters — whether it's getting rid of the football on a sack situation or being able to make sure everything is right in the huddle before we leave it."
Phillips, meanwhile, has appeared in two games this season without throwing a pass but has earned the respect of teammates for his dedication to the program. He played in four games during the 2009 season when he completed 7 of 12 passes for 65 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. Since that time, he has undergone three ACL surgeries for different tears to his right knee.
"Just the perseverance and the battle that he's been through to get to where he is today, the kids rally around him extremely well," Bielema said. "He did a lot to get to where he is, and sometimes when you have that in somebody, it's very hard to deny them the opportunity to have success. And Curt's a runner. He's a guy that can move the football around a little bit with his arm and with his feet."
Bielema was asked if he would consider playing both quarterbacks in the same game. Phillips, for example, entered during the first half against Illinois earlier this season as part of a specific package to roll him out of the pocket.
"For the most part, I would say no," Bielema said. "It's one guy and you hope he takes the ride and runs."
November reign: Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2 in Big Ten play) can secure a spot in the Big Ten championship with a victory against Indiana (4-5, 2-3) on Saturday. And the game certainly comes at a good time on the schedule — at least historically.
Wisconsin is 17-3 under Bielema in the month of November, including a 9-3 mark in road games.
"The month of November is when you win championships," Bielema said. "You have to close out your season to get to where we want to be. That's a huge emphasis with our guys. Not just now that we're in November, but really throughout the course of the year."
Both Illinois and Purdue, the only other eligible teams from the Leaders Division, stand 0-5. A Wisconsin victory against Indiana would put the Badgers ahead a full two games — and give them the tiebreaker — with two regular-season games remaining.
Ohio State (6-0) and Penn State (4-1) are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions.
Wagner returns: Wisconsin's offensive line should receive a lift from the return of left tackle Ricky Wagner. Wagner, a preseason Outland Trophy candidate, missed the past two weeks with a right knee injury but began practicing last week during the team's bye.
Bielema said Wagner, a 6-foot-6, 317-pound product of West Allis, Wis., was still highly thought of by NFL scouts. Wagner is a projected first-round draft pick in 2013, following in the footsteps of past Badgers left tackles.
Former Wisconsin left tackle Joe Thomas was the third overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft to Cleveland. Left tackle Gabe Carimi went No. 29 in the first round in 2010 to Chicago.
"One thing I'll say to scouts as they come through, there's probably only one Joe Thomas in your lifetime," Bielema said. "An extremely talented football player at the tackle position. The next first round draft pick I had was Gabe Carimi. In my opinion, (Wagner) is probably somewhere in the middle of those guys.
"The one thing about Ricky that people lose sight of, he only played a couple years of high school football. He came here as a tight end. His years of football knowledge at the tackle position are in front of him. His best years are definitely in the years to come."
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.