Rose Bowl preview: Badgers and Ducks put ground games to test
Wisconsin must slow Oregon, but has not faced an offense of the Ducks' caliber
Oregon, meanwhile, had success against physical Stanford and Washington RBs
Both teams will be playing second Rose Bowl in three years; one will finally win
No. 6 Oregon (11-2) vs. No. 9 Wisconsin (11-2)
Jan. 2, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN)
For much of its 98-year history, The Granddaddy of Them All has been the domain of Big Ten and Pac-12 bluebloods USC (33 appearances), Michigan (20), Ohio State (14) and Washington (14). The last few years have been different, however. The Ducks and Badgers are both making their second trip in three years to Pasadena, and this time one of them will win. Oregon fell 26-17 to Ohio State two years ago, while TCU edged Wisconsin 21-19 in last year's edition.
The Badgers' last Rose Bowl victory came 12 years ago against Stanford, but that drought is puny compared to Oregon's: The Ducks' lone Rose Bowl win came against Penn on Jan. 1, 1917.
1. Slowing the spread. Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense has dominated Pac-12 defenses the past three seasons (Oregon is 26-2 against conference opponents since 2009), but the Ducks' breakneck attack seems to hit a crawl when opponents have more time to prepare. Kelly's teams are just 1-4 in season openers and bowl games, with the lone win coming against New Mexico. The more high-profile opponents -- Boise State (2009 opener), Ohio State (2010 Rose Bowl), Auburn (2011 BCS championship game) and LSU (2011 Cowboys Classic) -- have held the Ducks to an average 17.5 points in defeat, about four touchdowns below this season's 46.2 average. But it's hard to say how much of that was preparation and how much was the dominant defensive linemen who overwhelmed Oregon's offensive line.
Wisconsin should provide an interesting litmus test. While the Badgers rank sixth nationally in scoring defense (17.0), the front four is not their strength. Their best players are linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland and safety Aaron Henry, and they notched just 23 sacks in 13 games. "We'll probably have a couple different scout teams trying to replicate the speed of how Oregon's offense will come at you and try to simulate the tempo," said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, "But it's going to be a very unique experience and one that our guys are going to have to be locked into."
2. It's raining backs. Two of the sport's most decorated running backs will go head to head in this one. Wisconsin's Montee Ball was a Heisman finalist this season after rushing for 1,759 yards and scoring 38 total touchdowns, one shy of Barry Sanders' FBS record. Oregon's LaMichael James was a Heisman finalist last season and led the country in rushing average again this year (149.7 per game). "With LaMichael James and all he brings to the table with Montee Ball, you have two of the premier running backs in the world of college football on the same field," said Bielema.
Can either defense stop them? Oregon may be up to the challenge. In its best performance of the season, it shut down a very physical Stanford rushing attack. It also held Washington star Chris Polk to 80 yards on 24 carries. It's hard to predict how the Badgers will fare, because they didn't face a truly elite tailback all season. The closest was Nebraska's Rex Burkhead, who ran for 96 yards on 18 carries in an Oct. 1 game that Wisconsin otherwise dominated, 48-17.
3. Russell's last stand. After three mixed years with NC State, quarterback Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin for his final season and made the most of the opportunity. He finished the regular season second nationally in pass efficiency (191.6), including a 17-of-24, three-touchdown night in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State. His ability to scramble and throw on the run gave Wisconsin's offense another dimension, and he caused nightmares for opposing defenses on the play-action, often connecting with a wide-open Nick Toon or Jared Abbrederis on the deep ball.
Wilson may cause déjà vu for Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. A year ago, Aliotti was preparing to face another strong-armed, accurate and extremely mobile quarterback: Auburn's Cam Newton. The Ducks did a nice job getting pressure and containing Newton, and this year's unit has been even better at disguising coverages and confusing opposing quarterbacks. It will be up to defensive ends Dion Jordan and Terrence Turner to keep Wilson in the pocket and prevent him from producing big plays.
Most coaches preach "balance," but few offenses achieve it quite like Wisconsin's. The Badgers averaged 237.4 yards rushing and 229.5 yards passing this season.
Wisconsin came within two last-second touchdown bombs (against Michigan State and Ohio State on consecutive October weekends) from possibly finishing 13-0 and reaching the BCS championship game. But the Badgers haven't faced an offense remotely as explosive as Oregon's. In fact, the highest-ranked unit Wisconsin faced was Nebraska's, which checks in at 59th nationally. Michigan State, which twice gave the Badgers' defense fits, ranks 60th. Expect Darron Thomas, James, Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas to shred Wisconsin's defense.
Wisconsin's best hope is to control the clock with its own powerful rushing attack. It'll have some success, but Oregon's defense will limit Wilson's big plays and stall enough drives to pull away.
Oregon 35, Wisconsin 27