When the Wisconsin football team (3-2 Big Ten, 6-3 overall) kicks off a de facto division title game in Bloomington, Ind., Saturday, it will have its third starting quarterback of the season under center.
Head coach Bret Bielema confirmed Thursday what was first reported by multiple outlets Wednesday afternoon, that fifth-year senior Curt Phillips will take the reins out of the Badgers’ bye week after UW lost redshirt freshman Joel Stave to a broken collarbone Oct. 27.
Phillips will make the first start of his career, which has been beset three times by major knee injuries.
“It’s kind of a neat thing for him with all of the stuff he’s persevered through, to get to where he is today,” Bielema said of Phillips, who competed through the bye week with redshirt junior Danny O’Brien for the starting job.
“Last week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday both of them did OK, but Curt really found some rhythm on Thursday,” Bielema said.
Phillips will direct the Badger offense against an Indiana defense that is giving up the most yards in the Big Ten (428.1 per game) and ranks No. 10 in the league in scoring defense, giving up 28.6 points per game.
In large part because of that porous defense, the Hoosiers (4-5, 2-3) lost five straight games between Sept. 15 and Oct. 20, but have knocked off Illinois and Iowa the last two weeks to jump back in the Leaders Division race.
“It’s essentially the Leaders Division championship game,” redshirt junior middle linebacker Chris Borland said. “That’s something we know, and we’re going into it, preparing, treating it like a championship.”
In back-to-back wins, IU has racked up nine sacks, including seven against Illinois. For the year, Indiana is tied for third in the league with 22.
To help contain that pass rush, Phillips and the offense will have the services of redshirt senior left tackle Rick Wagner, who injured his knee against Purdue Oct. 15 and missed games against Minnesota and Michigan State. That allows redshirt junior Ryan Groy to move from left tackle back to left guard. Bielema said Thursday redshirt sophomore Kyle Costigan will slide from left guard back to right guard.
While the line will be back to full strength, Bielema hinted at schematic changes with Phillips—an accomplished runner as a prep star in Tennessee before his knee injuries—running the offense.
“He brings a little bit of a different skill set. You’ve all seen what he can do, so it’s an opportunity for him,” Bielema said. “It may not be a traditional Wisconsin offense, we may see some different things, it’s obviously something we’re excited to see.”
The Hoosiers and second-year head coach Kevin Wilson are no strangers to quarterback rotations in their own right. After losing starter Tre Roberson to a gruesome broken leg Sept. 8, fellow sophomore Cameron Coffman has started seven straight games. Still, freshman Nate Sudfeld has had chances to run IU’s up-tempo offense in six games this year.
“They’re doing a pretty good job,” UW redshirt junior free safety Dez Southward said. “You don’t see any drop off in one or the other, and they can both get outside the pocket and make plays down the field. I think as a whole, you can’t even tell they have two different quarterbacks because it doesn’t look different on film.”
Against Illinois, Sudfeld replaced Coffman and sparked the offense, which led the Hoosiers to a 31-17 victory. Then last week against Iowa, he entered the game in the first quarter, threw an interception the Hawkeyes returned for a touchdown and Coffman re-entered the game just before halftime. He proceeded to engineer a comeback win.
Despite all the rotation behind center for the Hoosiers, Phillips and his long-awaited arrival in the starting lineup will divert some of the attention Saturday.
“I think for our players and our coaches, it’s a rally week,” Bielema said. “It’s a chance to rally around your starting quarterback, offense, defense and special teams have to be a part of that.”