PASADENA, Calif.—Wisconsin (4-4 Big Ten, 8-5 overall) head coach Barry Alvarez will take the field one last time Tuesday in an attempt to protect his unscathed Rose Bowl resume against No. 6 Stanford (8-1 Pac 12, 11-2).
Alvarez left Pasadena, Cal., with wins after the 1993, 1998 and 1999 seasons, and his presence throughout the last month has unsurprisingly been a motivating factor for Badger players and coaches alike.
“He just brings such an obvious feeling of confidence that you can’t help but get racked up in his belief in what Wisconsin is,” Wisconsin co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge, who is following former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas, said. “It’s fun to be a part of.”
Avoiding an 0-3 mark for the Badgers that have been to each of the past two Rose Bowls is equally inspiring, as well.
“I’m always going to be honest,” Wisconsin senior running back and Doak Walker award winner Montee Ball said. “It’s hard not to remember the class that lost three Rose Bowls.”
Stanford head coach David Shaw, in his second season, has led the Cardinal to its first Rose Bowl appearance since the 2000 Rose Bowl, which was also against the Badgers. Wisconsin came out on top 17-9.
Shaw unsurprisingly has an incredible amount of respect for Alvarez, but isn’t letting his team get caught up in the extra buzz the coaching carousel has created or change the way his team prepares because of Alvarez being on the sidelines.
“They’re going to do what they’ve done all year,” Shaw said. “People talk about the five losses, but two overtime games and two of the really, really close games. Otherwise, these guys have the same record that we do.”
The two most notable threats to what has been a very stout Wisconsin defense are senior running back Stepfan Taylor and junior tight end Zach Ertz.
Taylor racked up 1,442 rushing yards on 302 carries (4.8 average) and found the end zone 12 times on the ground this season. Ertz had 66 receptions for 837 yards and had six touchdowns.
The physicality of each has caught the eye of everyone in the Wisconsin program.
“[Ertz is] is so good at using his body, even if there’s someone there with him,” Partridge said. “He’s going to play for a long time.”
The Badgers have played their fair share of spread offenses throughout this season, and redshirt junior linebacker Ethan Armstrong is relieved to play a pro-style team despite the toughness that the Stanford offensive weapons possess.
“I like to be in the box,” Armstrong said after a practice on Dec. 21. “That’s where I’m comfortable. It’s definitely a different type of game. You can’t make any mistakes. Not only getting to our spots, but you have to be very physical with this team. So it’s quite the challenge.”
Stanford’s third-ranked run defense will also present challenges for the Wisconsin offensive line. The Cardinal has walked away with victories in the last four games, and all have come against ranked opponents.
They held then No. 2-ranked Oregon to just 198 rushing yards on Nov 17, ending the Ducks’ BCS title hopes. The Ducks finished the season averaging 323.2 rushing yards per game.
The Cardinal sets up in a 3-4 defensive set, something that isn’t as familiar to the Badgers as they would like.
“It is unique definitely for us,” senior quarterback Curt Phillips said. “We don't see much of that in the Big Ten. I think Utah State was one of the few teams that truly played primarily an odd front. So it is a challenge, but having an extra month of preparation is really big for us just to study that, get used to the movement up front and the blitz packages are different up front, too, so it's going to be a little bit of a challenge.”
The Cardinal did, however, give up 284 yards rushing to UCLA in the Pac 12 Championship Game on Nov. 30. It was the second time in as many weeks that Stanford played the same opponent.
“I think any time you've got to play a team twice, it creates a much bigger challenge,” Stanford senior linebacker Chase Thomas said. “Just like when you saw Wisconsin play Nebraska the second time, they were that much more successful, too.”
Stanford, like Wisconsin, has undergone a quarterback change this season. Redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan replaced junior signal-caller Josh Nunes and started his first game against Colorado on Nov. 3, winning 48-0.
“He’s got the ability to run more than Nunes did,” Borland said. “But he also does a great job of throwing. He really trusts the tight ends.”
Hogan has thrown for 973 yards and nine touchdowns in his five starts. He has thrown only three interceptions.
Still, senior cornerback Devin Smith thinks the Wisconsin defense will have to be sound in every area Tuesday afternoon to slow the balanced Cardinal attack.
“No matter what on defense, you have to stop the run to be successful,” he said. “When they come to play-action, just minimize any play they can get. I think overall they’re a pretty balanced team, but I think we’re ready for whatever they throw at us.”