MADISON (MCT) — Curt Phillips brings the savvy and leadership of a fifth-year senior into his new role as the starting quarterback for the University of Wisconsin football team.
He also brings the inexperience and mistakes of someone who has started two games.
That dichotomy was on display in UW’s 21-14 overtime loss to Ohio State on Saturday.
Phillips deserves major credit for bringing his team back and forcing overtime after it appeared senior tailback Montee Ball had fumbled away any chance at victory near the goal line.
Taking over at the Ohio State 41-yard line with 1 minute, 33 seconds remaining and no timeouts, Phillips overcame an 11-yard sack on the first play and completed five straight passes, not counting two spikes to stop the clock.
He tied the game with a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jacob Pedersen with 8 seconds remaining.
“I think he never flinched,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “He goes down the field, made some big-time throws. ... We did exactly what we wanted to do.”
But in overtime, Phillips’ inexperience showed on the fourth-down throw that was batted down to end the game.
It was the same play the Badgers ran on Pedersen’s touchdown — only the Buckeyes didn’t defend it the same way.
At the end of regulation, Pedersen beat middle linebacker Zach Boren, a converted fullback. In overtime, Ohio State blitzed and used safety Christian Bryant to cover Pedersen.
Phillips said after the game he saw the man-to-man coverage and thought it was the linebacker on Pedersen. Canada said Phillips reacted the way an inexperienced quarterback would in that situation, going back to the guy who just caught the touchdown pass.
“He did what a young guy does, even though he’s not young,” Canada said. “...But if he just sticks it to the guy he’s supposed to go to in that coverage, we win.”
Jared Abbrederis was the other option on the play; on the television replay, he appeared to be open. It’s unclear whether it would have been a touchdown if Phillips had gone where the coverage dictated, but it almost certainly would have picked up the first down on fourth-and-6.
“We just didn’t make a play,” Canada said. “I’ve got to coach it better.”
The problem for Phillips is he doesn’t have much time to learn the nuances of the position. He has one more start this week at Penn State prior to the Big Ten Conference title game.
“I think he has some advantages because he is a fifth-year senior, but it’s still what you go through as a first-year starter,” UW coach Bret Bielema said.
“There’s just certain things, whether it be varying the snap count, whether it be taking a call from the sideline, whether it be an adjustment at the line of scrimmage, whether it be seeing a receiver open and having the confidence to actually throw it.”
It’s not all on Phillips’ shoulders. The Buckeyes rolled coverages toward Abbrederis, with a safety over the top and a cornerback underneath. Abbrederis did his part with three receptions for 40 yards. He was open other times when he didn’t get the ball.
Pedersen also played well, catching six passes for 66 yards and the touchdown. But more receivers need to make plays when defenses give so much attention to Abbrederis.
Phillips said after his first start (vs. Indiana) he’s still learning what he can and can’t do physically after three ACL surgeries on his right knee. That was the case on a couple sacks he took, when he tried to escape the rush and couldn’t get away.
Also, Phillips said he is not recognizing blitzes as quickly as he would with more experience.
That’s all evident on third downs, which have been a season-long problem. The Badgers were 5-for-19 against the Buckeyes and their current conversion rate of 33.8 percent would be the lowest at the school since 1989 (33.7 percent).
The two sides to Phillips came out on third downs: In the first half, he was 1-for-5 passing for 13 yards on third downs; in the second half, he was 5-for-6 for 57 plus a sack for minus-13.
Canada ended up calling seven running plays on third downs, including six with 4 or more yards to go. None picked up a first down, though a 6-yard run on third-and-7 set up a successful quarterback sneak on fourth down.
That was part of managing the game, Canada said, but a more experienced quarterback likely would have led to more confident play-calling.
“You don’t want to put our team in a bad position,” Canada said. “Then at some point you’ve got to go win the game, so obviously we threw more late because we had to.”
From the infirmary
Bielema is hopeful right tackle Rob Havenstein and middle linebacker Chris Borland can play this week, though the status of the players remains up in the air.
Havenstein was knocked out of the game Saturday with a knee injury but Bielema said it’s a mild sprained medial collateral ligament. He could be back practicing by midweek.
Borland missed the past game with a hamstring injury and told Bielema on Monday he feels good. Bielema said Borland would be evaluated before practice Tuesday.