In a season of head-scratching Big Ten football stories, the strangest of all may be the one on Saturday involving Curt Phillips.
Wisconsin’s fifth-year senior quarterback, who hasn’t started a game since high school and missed two entire college seasons because of three torn ACLs, will lead Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2) in what amounts to a must win at Indiana (4-5, 2-3).
A Wisconsin win would send the Badgers to Indianapolis on Dec. 1 as the Leaders Division champion.
An Indiana win would allow the Hoosiers to advance to the title game by winning just one of their two remaining games.
Writing “Indiana” and “championship football game” in the same sentence is weird enough, especially with IU in the second year of its latest massive rebuilding project.
But watching Phillips inserted into the middle of this event almost defies description.
Wisconsin started the season with Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien at quarterback. At halftime of the third game, coach Bret Bielema benched O’Brien and inserted redshirt freshman Joel Stave.
Against Michigan State two weeks ago, Stave suffered a season-ending collarbone injury, leaving most to think O’Brien would reclaim the job.
But Bielema, after opening up competition during a bye week, picked Phillips.
His career statistics: five games played as a redshirt freshman and two this season in mop-up time; 7 of 12 passing for 65 yards and an interception; 15 rushing attempts for 136 yards.
“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 where he is, and sometimes when you have that in somebody, it’s very hard to deny them the opportunity to have success.”
Unspoken here is what Wisconsin thinks of O’Brien at this point, which apparently isn’t much. Bielema said he doesn’t plan to alternate quarterbacks.
One element Phillips adds, despite his bad right knee, is the quarterback run-game. He has zone-read experience.
“It may not be a traditional Wisconsin offense,” Bielema said “You’ll see some different things.”
As for the game, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany probably has his Indiana voodoo doll and stick-pins out, hoping he doesn’t have to welcome a .500 team to the title game.
Second-year coach Kevin Wilson, former Oklahoma offensive coordinator, definitely has juiced up the Hoosiers’ attack. They have scored at least 24 points in every game this season.
Still, this moment appears to be too much too soon for Indiana. Wisconsin is a veteran team that played in the Big Ten title game last year and the Rose Bowl the past two seasons. Experience should prevail.
The pick: Wisconsin 27, Indiana 21
>> Penn State (6-3, 4-1) at No. 18 Nebraska (7-2, 4-1), 2:30 p.m., ABC: I went back and forth all week on whether to ring the upset bell here.
This is a classic tortoise vs. hare game. Penn State is slow and steady, controls the clock, protects the ball and limits mistakes. Nebraska races around at high speed, bumps into things, falls backward, gets up and sprints ahead again.
Conventional wisdom is that the turnover odds are about to catch up with Nebraska, and that the Huskers haven’t had their annual blown home game yet. But this season has defied all reason.
My pick: Nebraska 31, Penn State 27
>> Purdue (3-6, 0-5) at Iowa (4-5, 2-3), 11 a.m., BTN: Near season’s end, teams that are struggling often prefer to play on the road. The negativism and apathy on campus can become suffocating. A road trip can clear the mind and distance the team from reports that its coach is on the hot seat.
Case in point: Purdue. The Boilermakers have played most of their best football on the road, falling by three points at Notre Dame and in overtime at Ohio State.
Iowa already has lost three home games, and will have to hear the grumbling up close now. Plus, I still have trouble fathoming that quarterback James Vandenberg, who threw 25 touchdown passes last season, has four this season.
My pick: Purdue 34, Iowa 30
>> Northwestern (7-2, 3-2) at Michigan (6-3, 4-1), 11 a.m., ESPN: As well as Devin Gardner played at quarterback last week, Michigan fans are still wondering why he wasn’t ready when Denard Robinson went down against Nebraska.
Gardner’s emergence makes this Legends Division knock-out game less stressful for the Wolverines. Northwestern has had an excellent season, but just can’t seem to hold up for a full four quarters in these bruising battles.
My pick: Michigan 28, Northwestern 20
>> Minnesota (5-4, 1-4) at Illinois (2-7, 0-5), 2:30 p.m., BTN: The Gophers are playing for bowl eligibility. The Illini are playing because it is contractually obligated. That should give Minnesota enough to win on the road.
My pick: Minnesota 23, Illinois 14
Contact the writer: