The long-awaited first start for University of Wisconsin senior quarterback Curt Phillips will happen on Saturday at Indiana in a game that could decide the Leaders Division representative in the Big Ten Conference championship game.
A source close to the UW program on Wednesday confirmed Phillips has gotten most of the work with the No. 1 offense this week in practices and is expected to start over junior Danny O’Brien.
UW coach Bret Bielema said the decision was made at the start of the week and he planned not to tell the media because of the competitive advantage he believed it gave his team if the Hoosiers didn’t know who was starting.
The Badgers (6-3, 3-2) can clinch a spot in the title game with a victory. The Hoosiers (4-5, 2-3) would pull into a tie with UW with a win and hold the tiebreaker edge with two games to go.
Phillips was a highly touted dual-threat quarterback out of Kingsport, Tenn., and the leading candidate to be the starter as a redshirt freshman going into the 2009 season. But he was beaten out by junior Scott Tolzien and limited to five games that season.
Then came a disastrous string of three torn ACLs in his right knee, the first coming during spring practices in 2010. He missed the entire 2010 and 2011 seasons while recovering from the three knee surgeries but returned during preseason camp and was part of a three-player battle for the starting job along with O’Brien and redshirt freshman Joel Stave.
O’Brien started the first two games and was replaced at halftime of the third game by Stave. After making six starts, Stave suffered a broken collarbone against Michigan State early in the second half and was replaced by O’Brien, who was ineffective.
Earlier this week, Bielema said the players on the team respond well to Phillips.
“Just the perseverance and the battle he’s been through to get to where he is today, 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.”
Stave was the only quarterback made available to the media this week and talked about what it would mean to Phillips to get an opportunity to start.
“He obviously has been through a lot,” Stave said. “It’s an exciting opportunity for him to get a chance to get out there and play.”
Phillips (6-foot-3, 214 pounds) has played in two games this season without attempting a pass. He played one series against Illinois in the sixth game, rushing once for minus-2 yards. He also played late in the game against Minnesota two weeks later.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to go out and play, something he’s worked a long time for,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said about Phillips competing for the job. “(I) certainly felt bad for Joel, but now that you move past that, (Phillips) is excited to compete.”
Phillips completed 7 of 12 passes for 65 yards, including an interception, in 2009. He also rushed 14 times for 138 yards that season.
He does not run as well as he once did and is still somewhat limited physically.
“Curt’s been through a lot, but he’s moving around as well as he can and doing a good job,” Canada said. “He has a lot of intangibles, leadership, experience with the players and those things.”
While the starter gets the majority of work in practice, Canada said he split the snaps evenly all season between the backups.
“(Phillips) is not coming in completely rusty,” Canada said. “Him and Danny have had the same amount of reps the last few weeks.”
Despite the adversity he has endured, Phillips never lost sight of his goal to start. He often said he wished people wouldn’t make a big deal out of the injuries he has overcome.
In an interview at the beginning of the season, he talked about how the desire to be a starter motivated him through years of rehabilitation.
“That’s why you’re here,” he said. “I didn’t come here to sit on the bench and I definitely didn’t come back from three ACL surgeries to sit on the bench. That’s my goal coming in, I’m confident that will happen.”