After the Wisconsin Badgers spent the bye week getting healthy and gearing up for their second big game in the state of Indiana this season, head coach Bret Bielema saw plenty of positives in his quarterbacks. Danny O'Brien and Curt Phillips have apparently ran with the opportunity to start in the wake of Joel Stave's season-ending injury, sharing reps during the bye-week practices and making their mark on a continually evolving offense.
Yet as he announced in his weekly press conference on Monday, Bielema has no plans to announce Wisconsin's starter prior to Saturday's game at Indiana. UW's head coach had a staff meeting later in the afternoon in which the plan would be set, while the rest of the team will be told at practice on Tuesday. Bielema playing coy is hardly a surprise, and he added that like he's done in the past when positions have underwent transition, neither quarterback will made available to the media this week.
"I will say this, I think Curt and Danny both knew that everything was being watched and being monitored," Bielema said. "Both of them, Wednesday and Thursday in particular, practiced extremely well.
"Both of them have their own set of skills, but I don't think the offense changes much when they're in there."
That last sentence was a reference to the varying skills of O'Brien and Phillips, as the latter has always been regarded as a more mobile quarterback. Phillips has also had three knee surgeries since coming to UW, casting that mobility into some degree of doubt.
"I think Curt, 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 to where he is, and sometimes when you have that in somebody, it's very hard to deny them the opportunity to have success."
O'Brien, meanwhile, has battled impossibly high expectations since arriving in Madison. After starting the first three games of the season, O'Brien was benched for Stave and his playing time was relegated to two awfully difficult situations -- in the third quarter of the Michigan State game after Stave went down two Saturdays ago, as well as in the last two or so minutes of the 30-27 loss at Nebraska on Sept. 29.
"Obviously, Danny has started games already this year," Bielema said. "He started three football games, he's come in in a couple of others. He brings experience in the system that we already have. I think Danny understands the dynamics of a football game, how you've got to be able to convert on third downs. I think he understands the importance of ball security now more than ever."
O'Brien has also played through the adversity spurred on by the disappointing early-season play of the offensive line that led to the firing of first-year coach Mike Markuson, as well as a receiving core that has struggled to produce behind Jared Abbrederis. The junior receiver leads the Badgers with 37 receptions for 675 yards and and five touchdowns, and only two other wide receivers (Jordan Frederick and Kenzel Doe) have more than 10 receptions.
"I think as a head coach, you always want more," Bielema said of the receivers. "Just specifically, I've been very, very happy with Jordan Frederick. I think he's let us see that he can grow and continue as a football player. He's going to have certain limitations, but I think he knows those and as coaches we do. He's caught the ball extremely well. Kenzel Doe has continued, at times, to show us flashes."
Wagner back to full health
Bielema's best tidbit of news came regarding left tackle Rick Wagner, who is back at practice at missing two weeks with a right knee injury. Wagner practiced last Thursday and Sunday, and should be "full go" in practice this week.
The return of Wisconsin's top blindside protector obviously bodes well for its offense, though Wagner's season could also a jumpstart. The senior tackled entered the year on the preseason Outland Trophy watchlist and garnered hype as a potential first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, though his injuries and the turmoil along Wisconsin's line have robbed him of much of that publicity.
"I think early on, he had to battle through some things," Bielema said. "Obviously we had the transition with his coach and all that goes into it, but he really was starting to play extremely well. I think [scouts are] excited about his overall talents."
"One of the things I'll say to the scouts as the come through is there's probably only one Joe Thomas in your lifetime, an extremely talented football player at the tackle position. The next first-round draft pick I had was Gabe Carimi. In my opinion, [Wagner's] probably somewhere in the middle of those guys."
Bielema added that people often forget Wagner came to UW having played only a few years of high school football -- Wagner was rated the No. 1 tight end coming out of Wisconsin by the Wisconsin Sports Network in 2008.
"His years of football knowledge at the tackle position are in front of him," Bielema said. "His best years are definitely in the years that come."
- Junior defensive lineman Tyler Dippel is also back at practice after battling a shoulder injury.
- Bielema is hoping his defense can do a better job of closing out games: "Obviously, the case and point would be our last game. You're only as good as your last and you're only remembered for how you finish games. Obviously, we weren't able to close it out the way we wanted. What I thought we've done this year better than anything is we've just had so many guys step into roles as players have gotten injured and moved into some positions and done very, very well."
- After giving up the game-winning touchdown against Michigan State, redshirt freshman Darius Hillary was visibly upset in the locker room. Bielema said he made a point to go over to Hillary and give him a pep talk: "I specifically went over to him after the game and said, 'Hey, I'm going to remember a lot more of your great plays rather than that play moving forward.' I think he takes things in stride. As coaches, we've got to protect him a little bit, too. We had him lined up on the inside slot receiver against the closest throw for a quarterback, so we've got to make sure we're doing all the right things there.
- Kicker Kyle French will definitely handle placements vs. Indiana, though whether he or Jack Russell is used on kickoffs will depend on the wind and the game situation.
- Perhaps a little unintentional zinger from Bielema here? On Indiana: "They're playing at an extreme high. They're a 4-5 football team that has a chance to win a championship and talking Rose Bowl and all that jazz, so they're playing with really good confidence. I'll give [head coach Kevin Wilson] credit for that."