What a difference a year can make.
Last season, Curt Phillips wasn’t even at the Big Ten Championship game. Now, he’s the starting quarterback on the biggest stage a conference game can offer.
At home in Tennessee still rehabbing from his third surgery on the ACL in his right knee, the quarterback still dreamed of one day getting his shot. Phillips remembers the feeling he experienced, sitting at home and watching his teammates play for a conference championship without him there.
“It was disappointing,” Phillips said. “I wanted to be there with the team, that was frustrating. But it’s that much extra motivation, when something’s taken away from you.
“Now I get my opportunity to be a part of it.”
Phillips has never played against Nebraska, Wisconsin’s opponent in the conference championship game. Last time around it was redshirt freshman Joel Stave making the start, as Danny O’Brien made a late game appearance to run the two-minute drill.
But after the last two weeks, it’s no doubt who the Badgers’ best quarterback is in the clutch.
Leading Wisconsin back in the final seconds against both Ohio State and Penn State only to see both games lost in overtime, Phillips has begun to develop a reputation for stepping up when it matters most.
The hurry-up, two-minute drill that Phillips has thrived in so far for the Badgers resembles the offense the quarterback ran at Sullivan South High School in his hometown of Kingsport, Tenn.
And for a team that has lost its five games by an average of less than four points, that kind of ability to close out, or rather, bring a team back, is something this Wisconsin team desperately needs.
“It’s great to have that kind of faith in somebody that he’s already been there and done that,” redshirt junior left guard Ryan Groy said. “He’s already done it, we know he can step up in those situations.”
And he’s also shown improvement. After only throwing the ball seven times against Indiana, Phillips has thrown 25 passes in each of his last three games, throwing for 191 yards and two touchdowns – both career-highs – against Penn State Saturday.
“Each game I feel like I’ve settled down a little bit, especially from the first start,” Phillips said. “I had some mental mistakes I shouldn’t have made (in his first start), being a little giddy I guess. But I feel like I’m more comfortable and relaxed.”
It’s been hard to say Phillips has had adequate time to get comfortable this season. The redshirt senior has been sacked nine times this season, a result of lackluster play in the offensive trenches, team’s sending consistent blitzes to challenge the inexperienced quarterback and stop the Wisconsin running game and the quarterback holding onto the ball for too long.
With the Big Ten Championship game marking just his fourth start for the Badgers under center, Phillips says he’s starting to find his comfort zone as “the man” for his team’s offense.
“I’m starting to feel a lot more comfortable, like I’m on the same page as my receivers,” Phillips said. “At first, I felt I knew what was going on and what I was seeing from the defense, but I wasn’t getting it out that fast because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making any mistakes. So now I can play a little bit faster and trust myself.”
It was an observation also reflected by his head coach, Bret Bielema.
“I think the part that probably has shown up, in my opinion, from an old defensive coach, there are some plays where he maybe wasn’t quite sure he could throw it,” Bielema said at his Monday press conference. “If you just hesitate a half second, sometimes that window can close.”
Wisconsin’s No. 1 wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who was named a consensus first team all-Big Ten selection Monday, has seen his production vastly decrease since the injury to Stave, recording just seven catches over the past three games.
But, like Bielema and Phillips, Abbrederis also voiced both receiver and quarterback are still learning from one another.
“We’re just trying to figure each other out, with the play-calling, trying to understand what he’s good at,” Abbrederis said. “I think we’re good chemistry-wise and as the weeks go on we just keep getting better and better.”
Phillips admitted he needed some time to adjust to the starting role. When he took over the offense nearly a month ago, it was the first time he received the majority of reps at quarterback since fall camp. But he found the learning curve slighted thanks to a lasting friendship with a former Wisconsin quarterback.
And not just any quarterback. This one led Wisconsin to their first Rose Bowl in a decade, a feat Phillips will look to achieve with a win on Saturday.
“One person, I’ve always looked to for advice is Scott Tolzien,” Phillips said. “I usually talk to Scott a couple times a week. We’re pretty close, he’s always good to talk to because he keeps you grounded.
“He’s always got some good advice, right before the competition opened up when Joel got hurt he said to make the most of it because I had already come this far and to just to have fun with it.”
So, will he brag to his friend if he ends up winning Wisconsin its first Rose Bowl since 2000?
“No, I haven’t made it that far yet,” he laughed. “We have to win this one Saturday.”
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