MADISON -- Nearing the completion of Wisconsin's bye week, head coach Bret Bielema sees the Badgers are rejuvenated and ready for a breakneck Indiana offense on Nov. 10. That's all with Danny O'Brien and Curt Phillips battling for the starting quarterback job after Joel Stave broke his left clavicle in last Saturday's 16-13 Homecoming loss to Michigan State, and after the Badgers saw their Leaders Division lead narrow to two games over the Hoosiers.
Bielema had mostly positive news in meeting the media on Thursday night, announcing left tackle Ricky Wagner (knee) has been able to practice this week and should be a full participant in next week's practices, as well. After two days of what Bielema detailed as strong, high-energy practices with valuable film sessions, the Badgers are "ahead of schedule" in their preparation for the Hoosiers' offense, which ranks second in the Big Ten in total offense (443.4 yards per game) and third in scoring offense (34.2 points per game).
"We needed a bye week," Bielema said. "I think it was a really critical week for us to kind of regroup and attack the month of November."
The only bit of bad news came regarding the future of junior linebacker A.J. Fenton, who Bielema confirmed has been forced to give up football due to lingering back issues. Fenton, who has recorded seven tackles and one forced fumble in 26 career games, had back surgery right before fall camp that did not go as well as hoped. Bielema said the team had been leaving Fenton's playing career in his hands, which Fenton ultimately decided to end after a conversation in Bielema's office on Sunday.
"I told our a team on Tuesday it's a reminder that our game can be very, very cruel at times," Bielema said, adding that Fenton was one of the coaching staff's "favorites."
"He's a guy that we actually talked about the possibility of moving positions," Bielema continued. "I was really strong with him that I thought he could play linebacker and he really started to come on last fall during the course of the season. Really, him and [linebackers coach Andy Buh] hit it off well. He was playing exceptionally well. He never really played linebacker until he came here; he was a safety and a quarterback, a very intelligent, high-energy, high-motor guy."
Other notes from Bielema's media session:
-- The Badgers are preaching caution to Stave. Bielema said he had to stop the redshirt freshman quarterback from twirling a ball in his hands as he watched Tuesday's practice from the sideline.
"It's difficult. Tuesday was the first time we were really out there on the field and he kind of just was standing there and taking it on. He said, ‘Coach, I've never had to sit before.' This is a growing process that he unfortunately has to go through."
-- Regarding the quarterbacks that will be battling for Stave's job, Bielema said he has been pleased with both O'Brien and Phillips in practice.
"I thought both of them, especially today, Curt and Danny both had a real good day. They're obviously competing and you could see it kind of brings the best out of people. Kids are aware of it, as well. I think our offensive players in particular. Hopefully that'll keep moving forward and we'll move forward in the next week and see where we're at."
Bielema also had an interesting quote regarding the transition the offense will be facing with either O'Brien or Phillips under center.
"For where we're at and what we've been training, the quarterbacks going to be different," Bielema said. "We don't want our offense to really change. That's one thing that I've seen really come out of it."
-- Bielema again referenced Wisconsin's Rose Bowl prep for Oregon last winter as a benefit for this week. He said the key will be having personnel groups ready on the sidelines, as the rules stipulate the offense can snap the ball as soon as possible if it does not make any substitutions. If the offense does send players on and off the field, the defense is then allowed an opportunity to make substitutions of its own.
-- And the money quote, when Bielema was asked if the players are aware that they are all but assured of a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game if they beat Indiana:
"I would say they all know that. They'd have to have their head in the sand if they didn't know that already. Plus, as a head coach, I put things out there that are real. Obviously that's one of them. Some teams after them are in our way of trying to win a Leaders title, as well. So I think there's a lot of different scenarios out there, but the only thing that we can control is the one we're in."