LOS ANGELES — A natural line of questioning during bowl game build-up is to ask football players to compare their next opponent with previous opponents from the season. The idea is that a team — and media members — can find some sort of gauge for the future based on the way it has played in the past.
So when Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips was asked this week to liken Stanford’s defense to that of other teams in the Big Ten, Phillips obliged by rattling off three programs: Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State.
For the sake of Wisconsin (8-5), it had better hope the results don’t follow the same script during Tuesday’s Rose Bowl against No. 6 Stanford (11-2). All three of those Big Ten games ended in heartbreaking Wisconsin losses in overtime because the Badgers couldn’t do what they typically do best: run the ball.
Which team is even better at stopping the run? Stanford.
“They’re very big — a lot bigger than how they look on film because we ran into a couple of them at Disneyland, and they’re some pretty big guys,” Badgers running back Montee Ball said. “They fly downhill and really attack the run game and do a great job. Their D-line is very physical and very good.”
Stanford ranks No. 3 nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 87.7 yards per game. By comparison, Michigan State ranks No. 8, Ohio State No. 13 and Penn State No. 23.
During Wisconsin’s overtime losses to Michigan State (16-13), Ohio State (21-14) and Penn State (24-21), the Badgers carried the ball 136 times for 383 total yards — an average of 2.8 yards per carry. In the 11 other games this season, Wisconsin averaged 5.9 yards per carry.
Stanford operates out of a 3-4 defensive front rather than a 4-3, which could create trouble for the Badgers because they rarely saw such a scheme this season. The Cardinal are allowing just 2.8 yards per carry for the entire year and lead the country in tackles for loss (120) and sacks (56).
“You definitely have to be aware of that and have to get the ball out because they’re coming after you,” Phillips said. “I think it’s something that our guys up front will take personally, try to give us a little bit of extra time, but they are very good at that.”
Of course, there is no guarantee Stanford will stuff the run simply because it has done so all season. Wisconsin enters the game ranked No. 12 nationally in rushing offense (237.8 yards per game) and possesses arguably the best three-man tandem in the country.
“The three-headed monsters, we call them,” Stanford coach David Shaw said.
Ball won the Doak Walker Award this season as the best running back in the country. He has rushed for 1,730 yards with 21 touchdowns yet has the third-best yards-per-carry average among the team’s tailbacks at 5.2.
James White (6.7 yards per carry) and Melvin Gordon (10.8 yards per carry) have come on strong late in the season to spell Ball and provide different looks offensively. White is part of a Wildcat-esque package involving seven offensive linemen and two tight ends that has created problems for opponents. Gordon has found success on pre-snap motion plays, including jet sweeps, which allow him to run free in open space on the edges.
“We’ve shut the run down early,” Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas said. “If we show we can slow it down, eliminate the run in the first couple quarters, they’re going to slow down as well. As long as we do our job of shutting down the run, making them one-dimensional and winning first and second down, our defense should be fine.”
Stanford counters offensively with a pro-style system that mirrors Wisconsin’s. The Cardinal will depend on running back Stepfan Taylor, who became the first Stanford player to rush for 1,000 yards in three straight seasons. Taylor has 1,442 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan, meanwhile, became the team’s full-time starter on Nov. 10 and has won all four of his games against ranked opponents.
Perhaps the biggest wild card surrounding the game is how Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave will be used. Stave, a redshirt freshman, hasn’t played in a game since breaking his collarbone Oct. 27 against Michigan State. But doctors fully cleared him this week to participate, and he is expected to see action in some capacity.
As a starter, Stave went 4-2 and improved considerably as he gained more confidence running the team’s offense. Phillips is 2-2 since taking over for Stave as the Badgers’ starter.
“Stave brings a little more to the table,” Wisconsin interim coach Barry Alvarez said. “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.”
Regardless of the quarterback situation, you can count on Wisconsin relying on its ability to run the ball. That means when the two teams take the field in Pasadena, strength will meet strength.
“You’d better bring your big boy pads for this game,” Alvarez said. “I happen to like games like this.”