If sitting in his Kingsport, Tenn., home watching the Badgers pull off a stunning 42-39 victory over Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game last year didn’t add even more motivation to Curt Phillips’ comeback attempt, it’s likely nothing would have.
One year, three different starting quarterbacks and three overtime losses later, and Phillips is posted up in former Indianapolis Colts legend Peyton Manning’s locker room about to lead the offense in Lucas Oil Stadium against the 10-2 Nebraska Cornhuskers for a chance at a third consecutive Rose Bowl trip.
Although Phillips likely would not have had this opportunity if redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave hadn’t broke his collarbone and if redshirt junior quarterback Danny O’Brien hadn’t underperformed, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has reminded us throughout the season that he has three quarterbacks capable of leading the team.
But Phillips didn’t get his motivation from Bielema’s praise. Not exclusively, at least.
“When anything is taken away from you, it really shows you what it means and how much you want to be back out there and that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get back,” Phillips said.
Suffering three torn ACLs is obviously an enormous effect on anybody. Most would call it quits, but redshirt junior tight end Jacob Pedersen hasn’t seen any dreariness in the 6-foot-3, 214-pound signal caller.
“I’ve been around Curt since the day I got here,” Pedersen said. “He’s the same guy day in and day out. Nothing changes with him.”
It’s no wonder where he gets his comfortable manner late in games.
Although the Badgers’ 564 yards rushing against Indiana on Nov. 10 made his transition about as easy as it gets, the last two weeks have been more than challenging.
But it has been in crunch time during these losses, though, where he has excelled. He led drives in each game that resulted with touchdown passes with less than 20 seconds remaining in regulation.
“I think we just need to find a way to keep that urgency throughout the rest of the game,” Phillips said. “But I’m comfortable with it. I think everybody did a good job of just trusting the plan and going with it.”
Phillips finished 5-of-6 on each of the last drives of regulation against Penn State and Ohio State. He had only seven pass attempts in the 62-14 win over Indiana, completing four of them, and admitted he was a little anxious at the beginning of that game.
“I had some mental mistakes I shouldn’t have made [at Indiana],” he said. “I was being kind of giddy, I guess. But I definitely feel like I’m more comfortable and relaxed.”
And don’t think the tough environments takes away from his passion for the game.
“Nobody loves the game or enjoys the game more than Curt Phillips and it really shows in his play,” Bielema said.
If the Badgers struggle to find a rhythm in the run game like the team’s previous matchup on Sept. 29 in Lincoln, Phillips may have to play a bigger role and play-action will be key against the Blackshirts. The Badgers had only 56 net yards on the ground in 41 attempts, forcing Stave to throw 23 times.
But if Phillips is forced to throw more than offensive coordinator Matt Canada would like, Pedersen is sure Phillips is up to the task.
“He’s everything you look for in a quarterback,” Pedersen said. “He’s got the confidence, the leadership, he always has good composure. [Now] we have to make some plays for him, too.”
Although Phillips’ road to recovery will be the last thing on his mind in Indianapolis, he couldn’t help but think about how special being in this position will be once it settles in well down the road.
“I’m sure afterwards when I look back on it, that’ll be pretty cool just to think about,” he said. “I just try to make the most of my opportunities and make sure I have no regrets once it’s over with.”