INDIANAPOLIS - Taylor Martinez is enjoying the career Curt Phillips always envisioned for himself.
Both were first-team all-state quarterbacks in high school, Martinez in California and Phillips in Tennessee, and both appeared unstoppable at both running and passing. Each player piled up 4,000 yards of offense as a senior, and each was lured to a Big Ten powerhouse -- Martinez to Nebraska, Phillips to Wisconsin -- by the chance to play for championships.
They'll do exactly that on Saturday, facing each other in Lucas Oil Stadium before a national TV audience, with a trip to the Rose Bowl at stake.
But that's about all they have in common anymore.
"It's a couple of good quarterbacks," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. "Maybe one with a little bit more experience."
That's one way to put it. Martinez has been a starter for three years. Phillips has been a starter for three games.
Martinez, according to a vote of Big Ten coaches this week, was the league's best quarterback in 2012. He leads the Big Ten in total offense, is fourth in passing, has run for more than 800 yards -- and has, in his junior year, already become Nebraska's all-time leading passer.
"He is really throwing the ball extremely well. A guy that earned the respect of all our players," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. "We all know he's a good athlete. We know he can run. But he's very, very clean and precise in his throws, his reads, his reactions."
First O'Brien, then Stave
While Martinez led Nebraska on the six-game winning streak that carried the Huskers to their first Big Ten Championship Game, Phillips spent the season's first two months doing what he's done for most of his career in Madison: watching. The fifth-year senior watched as transfer quarterback (and St. Paul native) Danny O'Brien won the job in training camp, then lost it in a flurry of turnovers during the Badgers' scarily inconsistent nonconference schedule.
He waited as Joel Stave took over for O'Brien, settled in to the position, then suffered a broken collarbone that ended his season.
That left the job, finally, up to Phillips. After five years in Madison -- and three separate career-wrecking surgeries to repair the ACL in his right knee -- he was the starter.
"He's done a nice job of handling everything, of handling himself when he makes a mistake, because those are going to happen," Bielema said. "... I think it speaks to the character of this team that three quarterbacks have played, and we're in the position we're in."
But that position now is needing to beat Nebraska, something that O'Brien and Stave were unable to do in the Big Ten opener in September, a 30-27 loss in Lincoln. It means throwing the ball against the nation's top-ranked pass defense.
Gifted runners to hand off to
The Badgers won Phillips' debut at Indiana, though he threw only seven passes because Wisconsin battered its way to a school-record 564 rushing yards. They've lost their past two games, albeit both in overtime, to Ohio State and Penn State, games in which Phillips had difficulty completing anything but short throws -- until the two-minute drill in both games, when he suddenly excelled.
"Curt can throw the football, when he sees it and reads it and reacts to it," Bielema said. "There are some plays where he maybe wasn't quite sure he could throw it. If you just hesitate a half-second, sometimes that window can close. In a two-minute situation, you're ill-afforded that moment of indecision."
So how much will the Badgers need Phillips on Saturday, and how much can they count on tailbacks Montee Ball and James White to carry the offensive load instead? Even Phillips isn't sure how critical his play will be, though it stands to reason that play-action passes will be important to keep the Huskers from loading up against the run.
"Wisconsin quarterbacks are traditionally kind of labeled as game managers," Phillips said. "We don't need quarterbacks to do anything spectacular. ... At the same time, taking risks is necessary. But they always have to be calculated risks."