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PASADENA, Calif. - Having taken a small army to the Rose Bowl stadium the last two seasons, Wisconsin makes the gameday travel plans easy: offensive starters on bus one, defensive starters on bus two and guys not involved in the game plan on bus three.
While his classmates and friends rode on the first two buses in 2011 and 2012, quarterback Curt Phillips rode silently on the bus third.
It was a demotion that Phillips took seriously, one that he acknowledges ignited the fire underneath him that still burns brightly.
“I made the decision that I didn’t want to be on that bus again,” said Phillips. “We’re at a game on such a big stage and I wasn’t a part of it.”
The story of Phillips has been well documented. Named the scout team's offensive player of the year in 2008, the same year J.J. Watt won the honor for defensive scout team, Phillips had to overcome two torn ACLs and a serious infection that require another ACL operation just to be considered an option for the Wisconsin coaching staff.
With struggles from Danny O’Brien and Joel Stave on the shelf with a broken collarbone, Phillips was finally given the keys to Wisconsin’s offense in the 10th game of his fifth season. The long awaited grind made the view from the Rose Bowl Stadium field better Christmas Day when Phillips stood on the plush grass knowing this time he was more than just a spectator.
When Phillips makes his fifth straight start in this afternoon’s 99th Rose Bowl against No.8 Stanford, the Badgers will become the first team to play in three consecutive BCS bowl games using three different starting quarterbacks.
And while Phillips has deceived the uneducated about his lack of abilities when it’s pointed out he’s attempted 10 passes or less in two of his starts, Phillips led the Badgers on successful fourth-quarter comebacks to force overtime in the other two.
Against Ohio State, the Badgers got the ball back with 1:33 to play and trailing, 14-7. Phillips led the Badgers 41 yards down the field in 1:25 by going 5-for-5 for 48 yards and a game-tying 5-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Pedersen with eight seconds remaining.
According to a source, Phillips made that play call on his own when there was a disagreement on the headset about what play should be run.
“He does a great job of staying poised, keeping us calm,” said senior Montee Ball. “He can make a lot of plays on his feet.”
At Penn State, the Badgers got the ball back with 3:51 to play and trailing, 21-14. Phillips went 6-for-7 for 54 yards and a game-tying 4-yard TD pass to Jeff Duckworth with 18 seconds remaining. Phillips went 12-for-25 for a career-high 191 yards and two touchdown passes.
“(Curt’s) been playing great,” said receiver Jared Abbrederis. “He's stepped in and been a leader for us. We've all rallied around him. He's been around for four years now, maybe five. He knows the program, and all the guys have rallied around him.”
Because of that support, Phillips calls the 60 minutes in Indianapolis – a game where he only threw the ball eight times but completed six passes and caught a 27-yard pass from Abbrederis – as the proudest moment of his career, enjoying every bit of a 70-31 victory that earned him a third Big Ten championship ring … but his first when he actually was able to contribute.
“That was probably the most fun I have had in a long time,” said Phillips. “We put an exclamation point on the fact that we deserve to be here.”
Phillips being a rallying point is easily understandable. On the team’s first Rose Bowl trip at the end of 2010, Phillips spent the weekend on crutches and going through rehabilitation instead of preparing for TCU’s defense.
“I was excited to be out there as part of the team but at the same time, it was definitely disappointing to not be able to contribute,” said Phillips. “That was frustrating, not being able to take it all in.”
So in order to block out the frustration, Phillips simply kept his head down and controlled what he could control. Working long hours with assistant strength coach Brian Bott, Phillips feels his knee is no longer the liability it once was.
“The biggest thing for me, I didn't want to give up,” said Phillips. “I had a lot of people who encouraged me to keep driving. Even when we went through fall camp, I was able to be out there, but I wasn't at a level I could participate fully.
“I just wanted to keep driving and hope I did get an opportunity. I didn't know that it would come, but I'm thankful that it did. I'll try to make the most of it.”
Still waiting to hear from the NCAA if he will be awarded a sixth year of eligibility, Phillips and his focused demeanor has concentrated on what could be his final college game all the while still soaking in a long-overdue experience. The rides at Disneyland were more fun this time. The roast beef at Lawry’s tasted better, and the game plan against the Cardinal has been fun business.
“As a kid, you grow up watching the Rose Bowl and dream of playing in it one day,” said Phillips. “To have the opportunity to do that now is something I'm extremely excited about it. To sit behind two successful quarterbacks now playing in the NFL is very big for me. I may not be able to mirror what they do skill set wise as great, but what I learned from them is definitely an advantage for me.”
He might not be as talented as Scott Tolzien or Russell Wilson, but he’ll likely sit in their seat on the first bus that pulls up to the Rose Bowl.
“I hope I am on the first bus,” said Phillips smiling.
He should be. He’s earned that right.