Rose Bowl Preview: Wisconsin-Stanford

The Rose Bowl features two teams with something to prove, albeit for different reasons. Wisconsin has lost in Pasadena the last two years and, as they drag in with five losses, are looking to avoid a third straight New Year’s Day defeat. Stanford is a hot team with a talented freshman quarterback that might be the best team in the nation if we started a playoff today. The Cardinal are looking to put a seal on their late-season surge. TheSportsNotebook will take a look at the paths both teams traveled to get here and how they match up against each other.

Wisconsin’s recent struggles in the Rose Bowl are typical for the Big Ten. Other than Ohio State’s win over Oregon following the 2009 season, the last time the Big Ten champ won a Rose Bowl was, ironically enough, when Wisconsin beat Stanford with Barry Alvarez on the sidelines. That was back in 1999. We should note that Ohio State won a national title in 2002 where they had to go outside the Rose Bowl, but otherwise the Big Ten champ has been mostly exposed in the Grandaddy of Them All.

The Badgers started the season slowly, with the trademark running game struggling and Montee Ball’s Heisman hopes quickly disappearing. In retrospect the one loss of non-conference play—a 10-7 defeat at Oregon State—doesn’t look so bad in retrospect. Nor does a narrow escape at home against Utah State, a game in which Utah State head coach Gary Anderson apparently impressed the UW leadership enough that they offered him the head coaching job a couple weeks ago. But on balance, Wisconsin looked like nothing like a team that could compete for the Big Ten championship.

A quarterback change put Joel Stave behind center and he threw the ball fairly well at Nebraska in the Big Ten opener, and Wisconsin forced some turnovers to build an early lead. But the Cornhuskers whipped UW at the line of scrimmage and won 30-27. The offense took advantage of a soft schedule in October and early November to finally get Ball cranking and the Badgers piled up huge rushing numbers in wins over Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana.

Concerns were twofold—the first was that in a game against Michigan State, within that same stretch, the running game was shut down. Wisconsin looked like a bully team—against weaklings they were dominant, but wilted against opponents who had a grasp on how to tackle. The second was even bigger—Stave, who was showing great accuracy on the deep ball, was lost for the regular season and sixth-year senior Curt Phillips, a mostly running quarterback would take over.

The midseason stretch clinched a spot in the Big Ten championship game, although games against probation-saddled Ohio State and Penn State still awaited. The Badgers lost both in overtime, although there was some reasons for hope—they outplayed the Buckeyes and matched up evenly with the Nittany Lions, but just couldn’t force a turnover in either game.

Then in a rematch with Nebraska for the Big Ten title it all came together in an incredible display of rushing dominance—over 500 yards on the ground, two different backs over 200 yards and a stunning 70 points. With a record of 7-5, it was a championship with an asterisk, but it was enough to get Wisconsin back to Pasadena, even if head coach Bret Bielama wouldn’t make the trip, as he took the Arkansas job, and Alvarez—the master architect who built the program and won the Rose Bowl in 1993, 1998 and 1999, came down from his AD’s chair to coach the game on an interim basis.

Stanford opened the season with wins over San Jose State and Duke, and as we look back, the Cardinal deserves credit for starting the season with such quality competition. Both teams would make bowls and both throw the ball well. Stanford’s defense did a solid job in containing the throwing ability of David Fales and Sean Renfree, and after a narrow escape against San Jose, the Cardinal blew out Duke 50-13.

What followed was a four-game stretch that began with a win over USC, that doesn’t look quite as good in the rearview mirror, then a loss at Washington that isn’t as bad as it might look at first glance—not only were the Huskies a bowl team, but this was a Thursday night road game. The Cardinal’s identity as a team that played good defense, pounded the ball with Stephan Taylor, but had trouble throwing the ball was taking hold.

Quarterback Josh Nunes would have his share of problems and his removal would eventually key Stanford’s rise to the  next level, but give Nunes his due for a win over Arizona—he threw for 360 yards, including a pair of TDs in the final seven minutes and led an overtime win, without which, Stanford would not be in Pasadena today. What overtime gaveth, overtime taketh away the following week in South Bend when Notre Dame beat Stanford 20-13 in a controversial finish when the Cardinal felt Taylor had broken the plane of the goal-line on fourth down.

A softer part of the schedule awaited and the rush defense absolutely dominated Cal, Washington State and Colorado.  Head coach David Shaw also pulled the trigger on a quarterback change, going to freshman Kevin Hogan. The change was made at the right time—there was no way anyone could lose the Colorado game and it would be the perfect tuneup for a brutal stretch of three games to finish the year against Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA—and Stanford hoped there would be a fourth game in the Pac-12 Championship if all went well.

All indeed went well. Hogan rallied the Cardinal from nine points down to beat Oregon State and overnight, you saw Stanford’s offense become better balanced. They pulled the big upset in Oregon that reshaped the Pac-12 North division race and then beat UCLA to clinch first place. One week later it was a rematch with the Bruins. This is the one game of the closing stretch where Stanford was outplayed, but they were the team that avoided mistakes and consequently won the game and the Rose Bowl bid.

Wisconsin and Stanford both come into the game looking to establish the run first. The Cardinal appears to have a better chance of opening up the passing game, although the word is from Wisconsin is that while Stave will not start, he is available to play and will likely see some time. If he can get the ball down the field, it will open things up for Ball and James White.

The readers of TheSportsNotebook know I’m a Wisconsin fan and will be somewhere with my brethren here in southeastern Wisconsin later this afternoon watching the game. My best hope is that the similar styles of each team will lend itself to a close game, and given that Alvarez is much better at clock management than Bielama (then again, your average trained monkey is better at clock management than Bielama), Wisconsin’s problems this year in close games aren’t likely to trail them around.

My worst fear is this—that the Big Ten is simply an overmatched league, that Stanford is a superior football team at most every level that happens to be peaking right now, and I’m going to spend the late afternoon and early evening watching Taylor muscle it down UW’s throat and Hogan surgically hitting key passes.

I’ve made picks on each bowl game to date, the outright winner, pointspread winner and Over/Under totals line, but I’m too biased here and I don’t want to root for anything other than an outright Wisconsin win. For the record, Stanford is a 6 ½ point favorite and the total is a fairly modest 48.5. But I’ll pass on picking this one, and I trust my status as a Wisconsin fan relieves me of any charges of weaseling out.

Orange Bowl Preview: Northern Illinois-Florida State

Outright Winners: 10-13
Pointspread Winners: 9-14
Totals Line: 14-9