Coming in losing back-to-back overtime games, Wisconsin's personnel heard that the Badgers' fifth-year senior quarterback was a huge admirer of the former Indianapolis Colts, current Denver Broncos and four-time NFL MVP signal caller.
With Wisconsin – designated the home team in this year's game – given the Colts' locker room and with Phillips not making the trip to Lucas Oil Stadium last season, the Badgers placed their offensive leader in Manning's old locker.
"He was like a king bee sitting in there today," UW coach Bret Bielema said during Friday's media session at Lucas Oil Field. "It was fun to see that. Our kids are rolling with it."
Phillips will make his fourth career start in Saturday's conference championship against No.14 Nebraska after his previous three seasons had been derailed with three ACL reconstructions.
Being named the starter over Danny O'Brien prior to the Indiana game, Phillips only had to throw seven times for 41 yards in his first career start as the Badgers clinched their spot in the conference title game by racking up a school-record 564 rushing yards.
With those outside the program questioning Phillips' ability to throw the football downfield, the senior responded by going 14-for-25 for 154 yards and a touchdown against Ohio State Nov.17 and went 12-for-25 for a career-high 191 yards, two touchdowns and one interception last weekend against Penn State.
More importantly, Phillips led Wisconsin to back-to-back fourth-quarter comebacks against the two best teams in UW's division.
"I think guys want to give Curt a win," said Bielema. "He played well at Indiana, but we weren't able to get the finishing touches in the Ohio State and Penn State games … Because of the way Curt has played, I think he has gotten a lot of respect. Some of the shots he's taken, throws he's made, decisions he's made from a coaching point of view has been outstanding. He's grown so much.
"Not many people write about runner ups. It's a chance to become a champion."
From the Infirmary
The biggest news coming out of Friday's pregame press conference was Bielema announcing that junior receiver Jared Abbrederis, who suffered a head injury in the fourth quarter of UW's loss at Penn State last week, and junior Chris Borland, who was injured late in the win at Indiana Nov.10, are healthy and ready to play.
While having Abbrederis back in the lineup is important for Wisconsin's passing attack, inserting Borland back into the middle of the defense will be key if Wisconsin wants to shutdown the dual capabilities of Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez.
"To have our middle linebacker back in our scheme helps us out," said Bielema. "He's the guy in the middle. He's the quarterback of the defense, makes a lot of the calls, all the communications. He's a guy, as you know, can make a lot of plays and gives you an advantage.
"I've been a linebacker coach my whole career and he's one of the best ones I have ever been around."
In his last seven games, Borland averaged 8.6 tackles and recorded eight tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, broken up four passes, forced a fumble and recovered three fumbles. Even without Borland, however, the Badgers held the Buckeyes to season-low totals in rushing yards (139) and passing yards (97) and Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin to only 200 passing yards a week after he threw for a personal-best 395 yards.
Now the unit is getting back arguably its best defender in Borland, a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the league's coaches.
"He makes you a really good head coach in a short amount of time when 44 puts the jersey on," said Bielema. "We were supposed to be doing a half-speed kicking drill on Thursday and No.44 started to go full speed and was very disruptive. He's ready to roll.
"Really good players, when they are in the play or in the huddle, make players around them better. No.44 is that kind of guy."
"We're a 7-5 team that is looking for respect. Because we haven't been able to finish those games in a positive way, it can all kind of be washed away with one opportunity here this Saturday. If you win this, you win a Big Ten Championship. If you win this, you get an opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl and play that game again.
"We're a really good football team. I know this; it's the best 7-5 team I have ever been a part of, hands down. I don't know if that's a great thing to say, but it's the truth. These guys don't have a loser mentality or anything that's negative. They are just a very resilient, positive group of young men that have bonded together in a way that's got them to this point."
Extra Points: Bielema said he used the goal of getting back to Indianapolis in the preseason, didn't mention it until UW prepared to play Indiana and didn't use it the final two weeks of the season … When asked if he wanted to see Wisconsin and Nebraska play every year, Bielema deferred to the league office and UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez … Bielema said he made a mistake in hiring Mike Markuson as offensive line coach, but said the Badgers would not be playing for a championship if he didn't correct it when he did … Bielema said that Nebraska is the fastest team across the board Wisconsin has played this season and successfully lobbied for ‘longer turf' to be installed … Bielema said he's not ‘100 percent convinced that the ball crossed into the end zone' on Michigan State's Hail Mary pass to win the two team's regular season game in 2011.