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MADISON - Fifth-year senior Curt Phillips and fourth-year junior Danny O'Brien are the candidates to start under center this weekend in place of injured Joel Stave when Wisconsin faces a vital road test at Indiana that could determine who represents the Leaders Division in the conference championship game.
Who will start that game, however, is once again privileged information. For the second time this season, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema will not make his quarterbacks available to the media and will not publicly name a starter heading into the weekend's game.
Bielema said the biggest thing he's been looking for in practice is the quarterback that can, "do the little things well, take care of the football, move the chains, hit the guy that's open, make the correct call at the line of scrimmage, get us out of a bad call, be able to handle the flow of the game, and those things all kind of can be simulated during practice."
Even so, Bielema admitted that his decision has to be based a lot off of what he and his staff see in games, which bodes well for O'Brien. Starting the first three games of the season, O'Brien has also been the first one off the bench twice this season (fourth quarter at Nebraska, second half against Michigan State) when Stave has been injured.
O'Brien lost his starting job at halftime of the third week after committing three turnovers (four if one includes the interception waved off by penalty) in three halves of football. Against the Spartans' top-ranked conference defense, O'Brien was held to only 44 yards passing but didn't put the ball in harm's way.
"He brings experience in the system that we already have," said Bielema of O'Brien. "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.
"One thing that we have continued to stress with him is just know that every play matters, every down matters, whether it's getting rid of the football on a sack situation or being able to make sure everything is right in the huddle before we leave it."
Phillips has played in only six games over his past four seasons, but has preserved through three ACL surgeries on his right knee to have contributed in two games this season. He has yet to attempt a pass this season.
"Kids rally around him extremely well," Bielema said of Phillips. "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. Curt's a runner. He's a guy that can move the football around a little bit with his arm and with his feet."
Bielema acknowledged that both practiced extremely well Wednesday and Thursday last week when Wisconsin did its heaviest amount of work. He also said that Wisconsin's offense wouldn't change depending on who is making the calls and said he's against using both quarterbacks, unless it was a designed package.
"For the most part, I would say one guy in, and you hope he takes the ride and runs," Bielema said.
Wagner over Carimi?
After missing the last two games with a right knee injury, senior left tackle Ricky Wagner practice Thursday and all of Sunday, suggesting that he will start this weekend.
Coming out of high school as a tight end and transitioning into the position, Wagner has started 21 of the team's last 23 games at left tackle and started 10 games at right tackle in 2010.
Although admitting Wagner, like the other offensive linemen, had to battle through the transition of Bob Bostad to Mike Markuson to Bart Miller, Bielema has been telling scouts that Wagner's skills and abilities rank somewhere between Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi, both of whom are earning NFL paychecks with the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears, respectively.
"There's probably only one Joe Thomas in your lifetime, extremely talented player at the tackle position," said Bielema. "(My) second (first) round draft pick (at left tackle) was Gabe Carimi. He's probably somewhere in the middle of those guys. The one thing about Ricky that people lose sight of, he only played a couple of years of high school football, came in at tight end … His best years are definitely in the years to come."
Bielema on having a meaningful game against Indiana in November
"Since I've been here and the past three years, the month of November are all big games. It doesn't matter what your opponent is or who it is, the games in the month of November matter. When I saw this schedule come out two or three years ago, I remember looking at it and taking a rough sketch of it and realize that we have Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State at the end of the year and knew those were going to be games that mattered.
"So for us here at Wisconsin, to have a game in November matter really isn't new, but I guess where you're coming from Indiana's point of view. They've earned their right to get there, and obviously they're going to want to try to defend it to the fullest."
Extra Points: Wisconsin's home finale against Ohio State will take place at 2:30 p.m. on November 17. The game will be on ABC with a mirror on ESPN2 … Bielema said junior receiver Jeff Duckworth (back) and sophomore receiver Chase Hammond (foot) have been fighting through injuries; a reason they haven't been on the field … Bielema complimented the way redshirt sophomore Kyle French had kicked the ball over the last few weeks, and will definitely handle field goals and PATs. Kickoffs will be determined on wind and scheme … Bielema said junior defensive end Tyler Dippel practiced last week and should be ready for Saturday's game.