Stanford vs. Wisconsin: Rose Bowl Breakdown
Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5)
Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The 99th edition of The Granddaddy of Them All will make history for an unfortunate reason: Wisconsin is the Rose Bowl's first five-loss participant. The Badgers, 4-4 in Big Ten play during the regular season, were fortunate to represent the Leaders Division in the conference title game due to Ohio State's and Penn State's NCAA ineligibility. They took advantage, routing 10-2 Nebraska, 70-31, to reach Pasadena for a third consecutive season -- the first Big Ten team to do so since Michigan from 1977-79. The Badgers' record is a bit deceiving, though: They lost three overtime games. In another twist, coach Bret Bielema, the architect of those three championship teams, has left Wisconsin to coach Arkansas. Wisconsin AD and Hall of Fame coach Barry Alvarez, who led the Badgers to three Rose Bowl wins in the 1990s, will take Bielema's place on the sideline.
Meanwhile, Stanford achieved another milestone amid its remarkable ascension the past three years, claiming its first conference championship and Rose Bowl trip since 1999. Coach David Shaw's 11-2 team scored two of the season's most memorable upsets, 21-14 against then-No. 2 USC on Sept. 15 and 17-14 against then-No. 1 Oregon on Nov. 17. Since taking over as starter in the Cardinal's 10th game, redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan has led the team to consecutive wins over four ranked teams (Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA twice) while completing 72.9 percent of his passes.
1. Strength vs. strength: Wisconsin's objective is no secret. The Badgers want to run and run some more. Behind All-America running back Montee Ball (133.1 yards per game), change-of-pace backup James White (61.7 yards per game) and upstart freshman Melvin Gordon (216 yards on nine carries against Nebraska), the Badgers average 237.8 yards on the ground, No. 12 nationally. After a slow start to the season triggered in part by several new assistants (including coordinator Matt Canada) and a new quarterback (now Curt Phillips), Wisconsin caught fire late, rushing for a staggering 500-plus yards in two of its last four games. Ball rushed for at least 191 yards in three of his last four outings.
But Stanford's success this season was predicated on its outstanding rushing defense, ranked third nationally (87.7 yards per game). The Cardinal's 3-4 scheme allows their talented linebacking corps -- led by stars Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy -- to swarm to the ball-carrier, as they did in holding Oregon to 198 yards on 40 attempts. The last time the Badgers faced a top 10 rushing defense, Oct. 27 against Michigan State, they managed a paltry 19 rushing yards on 37 attempts. It's unrealistic to think Wisconsin will run the ball down Stanford's throat, so Phillips, who replaced an injured Joel Stave in Week 10, will need to make plays through the air to keep the Cardinal honest.
2. Hogan the hero: Top 10 teams rarely voluntarily change quarterbacks in the final month of the season, but Stanford's decision to replace struggling junior Josh Nunes with the dual-threat Hogan early in the Nov. 3 Colorado game did wonders. The Cardinal went from scoring 21 or fewer points in five of their first eight games to averaging 30.8 in their last five. Hogan's mobility allowed Stanford to complement its staple I-formation power offense with more shotgun looks. According to SB Nation's Bill Connelly, Stanford ran the ball out of a one-back spread formation 40 percent of the time in the two UCLA games to end the season. Hogan ran 11 times in the Pac-12 championship game.
But Hogan will be taking a big step up both in terms of the size of the stage (though he did play in the same stadium in the Nov. 24 UCLA game) and the caliber of the opposing defense. Wisconsin, led by linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, fielded the nation's 13th-ranked defense (320.9 yards per game). Over the last three weeks of the season the Badgers held undefeated Ohio State to 14 points in regulation, Penn State to 21 and sacked Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez six times in a game Wisconsin led 63-17 after three quarters. Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor, owner of three straight 1,000-yard seasons, will need a big game to take the pressure off Hogan.
3. Alvarez: How big of a difference does a head coach make? We're about to find out. Alvarez, who spent two weeks of December conducting a coaching search that ended with the hiring of Utah State's Gary Andersen, is being paid $118,500 to coach the Rose Bowl. Alvarez seems reinvigorated by the opportunity, even admitting at one point to contemplating staying on after the bowl. However, he's taking a largely hands-off approach to his temporary job. He allowed Wisconsin's assistants to run pre-bowl practices and formulate the game plan, though under his supervision. Alvarez, 66 as of Dec. 30, will presumably need to make some important in-game decisions, but for the most part he does not want to disrupt the staff's season-long chemistry.
Unfortunately, there's already been ample disruption. Less than a year after Wisconsin's players adjusted to six new assistant coaches (seven following the early season dismissal of offensive line coach Mike Markuson), they're about to endure another transition. While Bielema's entire staff is staying through the Rose Bowl, the majority of the assistants have already agreed either to join Bielema at Arkansas (defensive coordinator Chris Ash, defensive line coach Charlie Partridge) or accept other jobs (Canada to Northern Illinois, receivers coach Zach Azzani to Tennessee, linebackers coach Andy Buh to Cal). Alvarez's main coaching task will be to serve as a calming influence for the players.
Can Phillips be a difference-maker? A fifth-year senior who hadn't played in three years, the 6-foot-3, 214-pound quarterback was a modest 36-of-65 for 457 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in four games. He'll need to protect the ball and use play-action opportunities to connect with receiver Jared Abbrederis or tight end Jacob Pedersen.
Stanford tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo: No team in the country relies on its tight ends as heavily as Stanford. Ertz is the team's leading receiver (66 catches, 837 yards), but the 6-8 Toilolo, not Ertz, has started all 13 games. Wisconsin's defense, which practices daily against the 6-4 Pedersen, may be more prepared than most for the duo's physicality.
26: Stanford's offense improved 26 spots, from 72nd to 46th, in Football Outsiders' F/+ efficiency ratings from the time Hogan took over as starting quarterback.
The gap between these teams' performances during the season was not as wide as their records indicate, but it's a bad matchup for Wisconsin given its heavy reliance on the running game and Stanford's dominant rushing defense. The defenses may stage a stalemate early, but once the Cardinal take the lead, the Badgers may commit turnovers while trying to catch up, allowing Hogan and Taylor to go for the dagger.
Stanford 35, Wisconsin 14