As the Wisconsin football team prepares for a critical matchup against Indiana Saturday, the biggest question mark is still attached to the quarterback position.
Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten) head coach Bret Bielema focused on this issue in detail during his weekly press conference Monday, saying he will let the team know Tuesday who will earn the starting nod against Indiana (4-5, 2-3). He will not publicly announce his starter ahead of the game, leaving plenty of speculation as to whether Danny O’Brien or Curt Phillips will take the opening snap.
Bielema added both O’Brien and Phillips practiced “extremely well” last week. But regardless of who lines up under center, UW’s head coach said both know what the coaches expect of them at quarterback.
“They just have to do the little things well – take care of the football, move the chains, hit the guy that’s open, make the correct call at the line of scrimmage, get us out of a bad call, be able to handle the flow of the game,” Bielema said. “Those things all kind of can be simulated during practice, but you have to base a lot off what you see during the game.”
Bielema added it was more the steady play of Stave than the shaky play of O’Brien that allowed the redshirt freshman to take over the starting role midway through the third game of the season.
“I wouldn’t say (O’Brien) slid down as much as other people moved up. Joel proved to us he deserves the opportunity to get in there,” Bielema said. “That’s when I made the transition to where we are today.”
Along with the quarterbacks, the wide receivers have also dealt with their own set of injuries. Jeff Duckworth, the hero of the Big Ten Championship game last year, and Chase Hammond, a player who has shown flashes of potential this year, have all fought off injuries this year according to Bielema.
Awaiting the Badgers Saturday is a rejuvenated Hoosiers team with a high-scoring offense. In its second year under head coach Kevin Wilson, the fast-paced spread attack is moving the chains efficiently against Big Ten defenses.
Indiana’s scheme is different from that of many teams the Badgers have faced so far this year, as they play at a higher tempo – one that could create problems for the UW defense.
Wisconsin has four or five defensive players that rotate in the defensive tackle and defensive end positions who only play 10 to 12 snaps during the game. But the up-tempo style may not leave enough time for those planned substitutions.
Indiana’s defense has also been playing well coming into this week and will line up against a UW offensive line that will have Ricky Wagner starting at left tackle after missing two games..
“You’ve got to be able to get rid of the football when you’ve got pressure,” Bielema said. “By that same account, you’ve got to be sound in their protections.”
Having the week off has been crucial for the Badgers as key pieces – notably Wagner and defensive end Tyler Dippel – had time to heal injuries and returned to practice during the bye week.
Dippel will add depth to a defense that has generally looked impressive this year, as each of the team’s three losses this year have come by three points. But Bielema said the defense is trying to improve its reputation of giving up key scores late in games.
“Case in point would be our last game [against Michigan State],” Bielema said. “You’re only as good as your last, and you only are remembered for how you finish games. We obviously weren’t able to close it out the way we wanted.”
As the calendar flips to November, the Badgers are about to enter the most important stretch of the season. With the Big Ten Championship game in UW’s sights, there is not much room for error this weekend.
A win over Indiana will secure the Badgers a spot in the Big Ten Championship game, while a loss will leave Wisconsin and Indiana tied, with the Hoosiers holding the tiebreaker. UW still has games remaining against Ohio State and Penn State to finish out the regular season.
“Since I’ve been here and the past three years, the month of November are all big games,” Bielema said. “It doesn’t matter what your opponent is or who it is, the games in the month of November matter.”
The games may be gaining importance for where Wisconsin lands this bowl season, but the head coach said it is not changing his squad’s preparation.
“We have a three-game schedule that we have to complete before we move on to the next phase of our season,” he said. “And I think they’ll take it as a one-game approach, as they have every year here in November and hopefully have a positive result.”