The Granddaddy of them all features a somewhat surprising Pac-12 champion, the Stanford Cardinals, against a definite surprise in Big Ten champ, Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers, by virtue of both Ohio State’s and Penn State’s bowl bans, represented the Leaders Division in the conference title game where they subsequently handed 12th-ranked Nebraska a 70-31 pounding.
After losing superstar QB Andrew Luck, OG David DeCastro, and TE Coby Fleener to the NFL, Stanford was supposed to be rebuilding while grooming a new QB. After a respectable 6-2 start under Josh Nunes, freshman Kevin Hogan stepped in against Colorado and the Cardinal have not lost since. Coach David Shaw’s squad took care of the UCLA Bruins in the Pac-12 championship game, 27-24. The game was a rematch of the regular season finale in which Stanford had a much easier time with the resurgent Bruins, beating them 35-17.
Besides Hogan, who has thrown for 973 yards and nine touchdowns, the Cardinal look to senior RB Stepfan Taylor who leads Stanford’s powerful running game with 1,442 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. Tight end Zach Ertz, who caught the winning TD pass in the upset win over Oregon, leads the passing game with 66 catches for 837 yards and six scores.
What really drives Stanford, though, is defense. The Cardinal defense yields just 88 yards rushing per game and is 21st in the nation in total defense. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason’s front seven is as talented as any in the country with LB Chase Thomas leading the charge. It’s an old-school smash-mouth type defense that features several blitz and pressure packages and is as good as any in the defense-dominant SEC.
Wisconsin returns to the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive year seeking its first win. The Badgers lost to TCU, 21-19, in the 2011 game and 45-38 to Oregon this past January. Head coach Bret Bielema had to replace QB Russell Wilson to begin the season and the task was much harder than expected. Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien looked to continue the transfer-wagon but was replaced by Joel Stave after lackluster performances led to losses to Oregon State (10-7) and Nebraska (30-27). After an injury to Stave, journeyman Curt Phillips has taken over and led the Badgers to their second consecutive league title.
Stave had been efficient throwing for 1104 yards and Phillips, who was 6-for-8 in the championship game, isn’t asked to do much, but the offense revolves around RB Montee Ball, the NCAA career leader in touchdowns (82). Ball rushed for 202 yards on 21 carries and three touchdowns to lead the Badgers to the Big Ten championship win over Nebraska. Wisconsin shredded the Huskers’ defense for 640 yards, 539 of them on the ground. Both Ball and RB Melvin Gordon went over 200 yards against Nebraska. Gordon led Wisconsin with 216 yards on just nine carries.
This year’s Rose Bowl should be a march down memory lane as two run-oriented offenses square off against two old-school defenses. The Badgers’ five losses were each by three points, including three of those defeats occurring in overtime. The Cardinal have also played there share of close games losing to top-ranked Notre Dame 20-13 in overtime and dropping a 17-13 defeat to Washington earlier in the season. Remember it was Stanford who held the fast-paced Oregon Ducks to just 14 points and then beat them in overtime 17-14. No question, this year’s Rose Bowl will be a hard-fought, defensive struggle with the team most successful running the football earning the win.