David Shaw and Bret Bielema sidled up to each other in a Texas hotel last year at an awards banquet and struck up a conversation about how much each coach admired the other’s football program.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Shaw, the Stanford coach, and Bielema, the Wisconsin coach, hit it off. The similarities in their styles of play are obvious: Two pro-style offenses with hard-nosed defenses that grind out victories with regularity.
So when Wisconsin (8-5) won the Big Ten championship Saturday night to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl against Pac-12 champion Stanford (11-2), both coaches were delighted about the prospect of facing one another.
“This is going to be probably the first team really for both of us that it’s almost kind of like a mirror image,” Shaw said Sunday night on a Rose Bowl teleconference.
The similarities in personnel and success are eerie.
Wisconsin ranks No. 13 nationally in total defense (320.9 yards per game), while Stanford is No. 21 (338.9 yards per game). Both programs are in the top 20 in scoring defense and in the top 21 in rushing defense.
“I looked up online and the statistics show it’s obviously going to be a great defensive matchup,” Bielema said. “Two defenses that, because of the type of kids that we recruit and the type of players that we bring into our program, we’ll be very similar on that side of the ball.”
On offense, both teams have a featured running back that is difficult to stop, although Wisconsin possesses more weapons in the backfield.
Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor has tallied 1,442 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. His 302 carries are 254 more than any other player on the team. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, the all-time FBS touchdown leader, has 1,730 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns. His 332 carries are 213 more than backup James White, who has 802 yards rushing.
Wisconsin and Stanford each has a Rose Bowl game quarterback that wasn’t the team’s starter at the beginning of the season, as both programs struggled to replace prolific quarterbacks from last year — Stanford with Andrew Luck and Wisconsin with Russell Wilson. Both of those signal callers are starters in the NFL now.
Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, a sophomore, was far behind Josh Nunes in the race for the starting role, and Nunes played well early. But the team struggled to score against Washington and Notre Dame, and Nunes slowly lost his foothold on the starting spot.
During a 48-0 victory against Colorado on Nov. 3, Hogan passed for 184 yards and rushed for 48 in two quarters of action. He quickly became Stanford’s starter.
“What you don’t see in the stat sheet is that he’s a young kid, but he’s one of those guys that steps in the huddle and acts like he’s been there for years,” Shaw said. “He doesn’t get rattled. He’s been hit. He’s made mistakes. He’s done the wrong thing at times, and it never affects the next play.”
At Wisconsin, fifth-year senior Curt Phillips began the year as the Badgers’ third-string quarterback behind Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien and Joel Stave. But O’Brien and the offense struggled early, and Stave took over as the starter in Week 4. He played well until suffering a broken collarbone Oct. 27 against Michigan State.
When Wisconsin returned to the field following a bye week, Phillips had been named the starting quarterback. This season, he has completed 36 of 65 passes for 457 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. He also has demonstrated his moxie by leading game-tying drives in the final minutes against both Ohio State and Penn State.
As far as program success is concerned, Stanford is 34-5 over the past three seasons and has recorded double-digit victories for three consecutive years. Before achieving that mark, the Cardinal had only three seasons of at least 10 wins in the program’s history.
Last season, Wisconsin reached double figures in wins for a third consecutive season, the first time in program history the Badgers had accomplished such a feat.
Now, they’ll try and win their first Rose Bowl in three tries under Bielema against a team that re-made itself this season.
“Our guys are very conscious not so much of the perception of us, but just the fact that we knew we lost a lot of offense,” Shaw said. “A lot of offense walked out the door. You’re talking about one of the best quarterbacks in the history of college football, and our top linemen and a bunch of guys that left, our top receiver and a tight end, all leaving. The guys wanted to make sure the standard of play stayed at a very high level in order to give ourselves a chance to be where we are.”