Breaking down Wisconsin's offense for the Rose Bowl
When Wisconsin takes the field on New Year's Day against Stanford, it will become the first five-loss team to play in the Rose Bowl. However, it's two of the Badgers' wins that should make people question whether they belong in this game. Wisconsin beat by Northern Iowa, a championship subdivision team, by only five points in its opener, then topped Utah State by two points the following week. These are not the expected margins of victory for games against nonconference foes in Camp Randall in September. The Wisconsin offensive line -- traditionally a model of strength -- played so poorly that the team's position coach was fired after only two games.
Quarterback has also been an area of concern for Wisconsin. After losing Russell Wilson to the NFL, the Badgers started the year with Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien under center. But after struggling through three games, O'Brien was benched in favor of freshman Joel Stave, who played until he broke his collarbone against Michigan State. Curt Phillips started the remaining four games. Now, Wisconsin will face a Stanford team that boasts an elite defense. Here's a breakdown for how Wisconsin's offense will match up.
Wisconsin wants to the run the ball. On first downs in the first quarter, situations in which offenses show their favored tendencies, the Badgers ran the ball on 79.6 percent of their plays this season. However, the rushing attack was not effective against Northern Iowa and Utah State to open the year. While FBS teams averaged 5.13 yards per carry this season, Wisconsin rushed for less than four yards per carry in those two games. Unlike the official NCAA statistics, these averages exclude the negative yards from pass plays that resulted in sacks. As mentioned above, this failure to control the line of scrimmage prompted offensive line coach Mike Markuson's ouster.
Wisconsin's rushing numbers have improved over the season. However, it's difficult to truly gauge the improvement since the quality of defense varies from week to week. The Power Rank takes statistics such as yards per carry and adjusts them for strength of schedule. This produces an algorithm that assigns each rush defense a rating, which outputs the expected yards per carry a team will allow against an average FBS rushing offense.
To see how Wisconsin's running game has evolved, take its yards per carry and subtract the rating of the opposing defense. This deviation shows how Wisconsin performed compared to the expected yards per carry of an average rush offense. A large, positive deviation signifies an excellent game, while a negative deviation means that the Badgers struggled. By using rush defense adjusted for strength of schedule, this analysis accounts for the difference in playing Michigan State, the ninth-best rush defense in our rankings, versus UTEP, the 107th-ranked unit. The Badgers' week-by-week deviations are laid out in the graphic below.
Three takeaways from this data stand out:
• Wisconsin's rush offense has improved over the course of the season. Strangely, however, both the team's best and worst performance came against Nebraska. The Badgers hit rock bottom when they rushed for only 2.39 yards per carry in Lincoln. Yet they stormed back in the Big Ten championship game, rushing for a whopping 10.78 yards per carry. These two games were most likely outliers for Wisconsin, so their upward trend is probably not as dramatic as the data suggests.
• The Badgers didn't completely finish the season with a bang. While Wisconsin excelled against Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game, it registered barely above-average rushing games against Ohio State and Penn State to close out the regular season. That could bode poorly against one of the nation's top rushing defenses.
• Wisconsin's early struggles weren't as bad as they seemed. Though the Badgers' efforts against Northern Iowa and Utah State appeared disastrous at the time, Northern Iowa would have ranked 42nd as an FBS rush defense, while Utah State ended the season ranked 23rd. In both of these games, Wisconsin came within a yard per carry of the expected rush performance of an average team.
Overall, the Badgers have the 21st-ranked rush offense after adjusting for strength of schedule. They face an excellent run defense in Stanford, the fifth-best in the nation according to our rankings.
When Wisconsin actually gets away from the ground game, it will look for starting quarterback Phillips to find targets Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen. However, Stave has recovered from his broken collarbone injury and could potentially play against Stanford. To predict how these quarterbacks will perform, look at their yards per pass attempt on the drives each played during the season. These numbers include negative yards from pass plays that result in a sack, because while the offensive line is primarily responsible for pass protection, the decision-making of the quarterback affects whether he ultimately gets sacked.
Phillips started the final four games of the season and averaged 5.60 yards per attempt. That average would rank 92nd among the 124 FBS teams, which average 6.51 yards per attempt. However, the sample size is small for Phillips. Wisconsin rarely called pass plays against Indiana and Nebraska, when the running game was dominant. Phillips could very conceivably lead an aerial attack ranked higher than 92nd, especially if the Badgers can successfully run the ball and set up play action.
Still, Stave performed significantly better, averaging 7.91 yards per attempt. That mark would rank 11th in the nation. In addition, Stave racked up 129 pass attempts compared to just 79 for Phillips. The larger sample size indicates with more certainty that Stave is an above-average passer. If he enters the Rose Bowl, he could change the course of the game.
Wisconsin will face a Stanford defense that seems to struggle against the pass. Ranking the nation's defenses by pass yards allowed per game, including sack plays, Stanford comes in at 68th in the nation, allowing 226 yards per game. However, this metric does not account for the number of plays a particular defense faced. For example, Arizona threw the ball 72 times against Stanford in Palo Alto this year. By ranking defenses in order of the yards each allows per attempt, Stanford moves up to 14th, giving up 4.99 yards per attempt. The pass rush plays a big role in this number, as Stanford sacked the quarterback on 9.2 percent of pass plays this season, the fifth-best figure in the nation. However, the Cardinal's secondary has also excelled, particularly when playing tight coverage on future NFL receivers Marqise Lee and Roberts Woods during a victory over USC this year.
Wisconsin will test Stanford's run defense early in the game with steady doses of Montee Ball and James White. This physical battle at the line of scrimmage should serve as the best matchup of the game. However, Stanford is favored by 6.5 points, and the Cardinal should eventually take the lead. Whether Wisconsin can make a comeback will depend on its quarterback play. By the numbers, it will have a better chance with Stave under center than with Phillips.
Ed Feng runs the sports analytics website The Power Rank.
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