PASADENA, Calif.—When the Wisconsin football team meets No. 6 Stanford in the 99th Rose Bowl later this afternoon, there appear to be more known qualities about the matchup. The Badgers’ opponent is not a little-tested but very talented Texas Christian team or an exotic, high-powered Oregon attack. This is power against power. Strength against strength. Each team relies on fundamentals to power stout front-sevens on defense. Each team has an offense built around a cornerstone talent at running back—Montee Ball for UW and Stepfan Taylor for Stanford (11-2).
Each coach has said over the course of the week what has been known about both teams, that they focus on running the football and stopping the run. Still, there’s no shortage of talent on either roster. Here is a look at some key developments to watch.
Wisconsin run game vs. Stanford defensive front
Despite a slow start to the season, the Badgers (8-5) enter the Rose Bowl with the No. 12 rushing attack in the country (237.8 yards per game). That average bumps up to 247.5 in conference play, including totals of 400-plus yards Oct. 13 against Purdue (467), Nov. 10 against Indiana (564) and Dec. 1 in the Big Ten Football Championship Game against Nebraska (539).
Stanford’s run defense checks in at No. 3 in the nation, allowing just 87.7 yards per game. The Cardinal held Oregon’s Kenjon Barner to 65 yards on 21 carries, Oregon State’s Storm Woods to 94 on 15 carries and UCLA’s Jonathon Franklin to 65 yards on 21 carries in the two teams’ regular season matchup.
The only smudge on the record of Stanford’s run defense came the last time they took the field. Franklin ran for 194 yards and two scores for the Bruins in Stanford’s 27-24 win in the Pac-12 title game. As a team UCLA ran for 310 yards.
Against Nebraska in December, the Badgers’ success started by getting redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon to the edge using jet sweeps. When the Huskers’ linebackers couldn’t secure the perimeter and had to assign extra help, UW exploited NU between the tackles. Stanford’s linebackers are among the best. Seniors Shane Skov and Chase Thomas lead the team in tackles and, combined with redshirt junior linebacker Trent Murphy, the three have combined for 37.5 tackles for loss. The Cardinal lead the nation in TFL.
When asked what concerned him most about the Badgers, Stanford head coach David Shaw said simply, “He wears No. 28 for the other team.
One quarterback or two for UW?
Redshirt senior Curt Phillips started the Badgers’ final four games after redshirt freshman Joel Stave broke his collarbone Oct. 27 against Michigan State. He is 2-2 as a starter, including dominating wins against Indiana and Nebraska and two overtime losses against Ohio State and Penn State. He will start the Rose Bowl, though Stave has been medically cleared to play. Stave started six games in the middle of the season for UW and made the Badgers more dangerous in the vertical passing game than either Phillips or junior Danny O’Brien.
“He’s in the game plan,” Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said this week. “Stave brings a little more to the table. He can throw the ball down the field. He brings a little more to it and gives us a little more ammo in the game plan.”
Will offensive coordinator Matt Canada actually use Stave? It could become a necessity if Stanford doesn’t respect the Badgers’ passing attack enough to keep from stacking eight or nine men in the box. Redshirt junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis will likely see one-on-one matchups, and if Phillips can’t take advantage, Stave may see time. If UW is in rhythm early, though, don’t expect a change just for the heck of it.
Stanford QB Kevin Hogan and his ability to make plays
Shaw said the mid-season switch to Hogan, a redshirt freshman, was not done overnight. He has started four games, but appeared in six before that. Wisconsin defenders have said he looks to pass first, but is able to tuck the ball and run if nothing materializes. Shaw said that dimension drove the decision to make him the starter.
“When it's third down, and nobody's open, and he doesn't have to throw the ball away, he can pull the ball down and rip off a tackle,” he said. “That's something we don't have to throw the ball. We can run the ball with one of our ‘gun runs’ knowing the defense has to count for them.”
The Wisconsin defense, which checks in at No. 13 overall in the nation, has done excellent work containing mobile quarterbacks this year in Utah State’s Chuckie Keaton, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller. Each quarterback brought a slightly different mix of run and pass and running style, but each played in predominantly spread offense. How the Badgers handle a mobile quarterback operating within pro-style schemes will be interesting to watch.
Stanford TE Zach Ertz vs. Wisconsin linebackers/secondary
A year ago, the Badgers played almost exclusively nickel defense to try to deal with Oregon’s team speed. They started two corners and three safeties in order to get Dez Southward, Shelton Johnson and Aaron Henry on the field at the same time. This year should look more traditional, with Johnson and Southward manning the two safety spots, but UW will have to decided how to account for Ertz.
The 6’6, 252-lb. tight end leads Stanford in receiving with 837 yards and six touchdowns on 66 catches. Shaw said this week he hasn’t seen any college tight end play as well as Ertz has over the last five years. The Alamo, Calif. native creates matchup problems in all facets of the game.
“He's changed the way people play us on third downs,” Shaw said. “We've had teams that play their best cover corner on our tight end, which has helped other guys get open, but at the same time, those guys haven't been able to cover them one on one.”
UW outside linebacker Ethan Armstrong said he was impressed watching film on Ertz, but didn’t let on how the Badgers plan to account for him.
“He’s really dangerous, he’s a tough matchup and if you don’t play him with good technique he’s going to beat you,” Armstrong said. “There are some plays he just makes whether you’re there or not.”
Ertz is also a good blocker, but helps the running game in more than one way.
“We've had teams play high over the top of them to try to double team and we've been able to run the ball with two high safeties on third down,” Shaw said.