Wisconsin vs. Stanford, 2013 Rose Bowl Game preview: Much closer than you think

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin's not as good as its 70-point explosion suggests, but it's also much better than its five losses suggest. Can Stanford's Kevin Hogan ruin the return of Barry Alvarez? 5 p.m. ET, ABC.

A week ago, the storylines were completely different. Fresh off of a shocking, 70-31 decimation of Nebraska in the Big Ten title game, Bret Bielema and the Wisconsin Badgers were heading to their third consecutive Rose Bowl, looking for their first win there.

Could the Badgers continue the incredible level of offensive proficiency against one of the toughest, meanest, most physical front sevens in college football? Could Stanford avenge a loss to Wisconsin in its last Rose Bowl trip (2000)? There was plenty to talk about here.

But then Bielema shocked the college football world by agreeing to take the vacant Arkansas job, eventually citing a bigger salary pool for assistants as one of a few reasons for the move. So instead of Bielema coaching in his third straight Rose Bowl, the interim coach is … Bielema's predecessor, Barry Alvarez. Hand-selected by Wisconsin's players to coach this game, Alvarez has worn a lot of hats since retiring as Wisconsin's coach following the 2005 season: Fox football analyst, Wisconsin athletic director, Big Ten spokesman, incidental conference realignment catalyst.

But now he returns to lead the Badgers onto the field for the 196th time, the fourth time in Pasadena (he's 3-0 there), and we have found ourselves a completely different storyline.


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Though the man atop the Wisconsin program has changed, however, offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Chris Ash are still in place (though in Ash's case, he's leaving after the Rose Bowl). There is plenty of reason to believe the personality of the Wisconsin team we saw at the end of the regular season won't change much between now and the trip to Pasadena. So with that in mind, let's take a dive into some charting data and see what we can learn about a game that is much more interesting than the teams' respective records (Stanford is 11-2 and sixth in the BCS standings, Wisconsin is 8-5 and unranked) might suggest.

Wisconsin is better than you might think.

September was rough on Bielema's Badgers. Forced to replace quarterback Russell Wilson, a good portion of a fantastic offensive line, and six assistant coaches (including offensive coordinator, now Pittsburgh head coach, Paul Chryst), Wisconsin struggled early. The Badgers barely escaped a tricky battle versus Northern Iowa, lost at Oregon State (at the time, we didn't know that Oregon State was actually damn good), needed a late missed field goal to beat Utah State (at the time, we didn't know that Utah State was actually damn good), and looked thoroughly mediocre in beating UTEP by 11 points. September ended with a 30-27 loss to Nebraska.

Considering ongoing quarterback issues -- redshirt freshman Joel Stave replaced Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien in the starting lineup, and Curt Phillips took over the starting job when Stave got hurt and O'Brien was too ineffective -- Wisconsin has actually been a strong team since October, however. The Badgers have gone just 5-3 in their last eight games, but all three losses (to Michigan State and Ohio State at home, and to Penn State on the road) have been in overtime. In fact, all five losses have come by a combined 19 points. Turn Wisconsin's 2-5 record in one-possession games into something closer to 4-3, and the entire perception of the season changes.

In this sense, then, it shouldn't be a surprise to see that Wisconsin actually ranks a healthy 15th in the current F/+ rankings. The offense has rebounded somewhat, to 27th in Off. F/+, but quarterback play has still limited the Badgers. Before the stunning 70-point explosion in the Big Ten title game (a game they only qualified for because both teams ahead of them in the division standings, Ohio State and Penn State, were ineligible for the postseason), the Badgers had scored more than 21 points just once in the previous four games. But the defense has been stellar, ranking eighth in Def. F/+.

Combine this defense with last year's offense, and you've got a national title contender.

Of course, Stanford is still better. The Cardinal, in absorbing the loss of quarterback Andrew Luck and a pair of All-America-caliber offensive linemen, rank eighth in F/+ -- 46th on offense, fifth on defense, 12th in special teams. The offense is limited but improving, but that defense is better than almost anything Wisconsin has seen this year. And it is certainly worth mentioning that the other two Top 10 defenses that Wisconsin faced this year (No. 1 Michigan State, No. 10 Utah State) each held Wisconsin under 3.7 yards per carry and under 5.0 yards per pass attempt, even if neither of those games were played with current quarterback Phillips. Stanford is indeed better, and that 3-4 defense is just about as good as anything the Badgers have faced in a while, but "eight versus 15th" sounds a lot more competitive than "sixth versus unranked," doesn't it?

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Wisconsin won't throw unless it has to.

In four games with Curt Phillips at quarterback, Wisconsin has scored over 60 points twice (62 versus Indiana, 70 versus Nebraska) and nearly beat two good teams (Ohio State and Penn State) twice. Wisconsin has shown that a) if you cannot stop Plan A (Montee Ball, James White and perhaps Melvin Gordon running and running), you will get destroyed, and b) the Badgers can stay in the game with defense and special teams even if you do stop Plan A.

That said, there really is no Plan B for Wisconsin's offense at this point, at least not unless Joel Stave makes a dramatic comeback. What made the Badgers so spectacular in 2011 was Russell Wilson's ability to make plays with his arm and get players like Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis more involved. But while Phillips is in the game instead of Danny O'Brien because of his ability to avoid mistakes, he also isn't given very many opportunities to make mistakes.

In this sense, it is difficult to glean much from Wisconsin's performance against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers couldn't even pretend to stop Plan A; Ball, White and Gordon carried 45 times for an absurd 527 yards and eight touchdowns. Wisconsin faced just 12 passing downs all game, and Phillips was only asked to throw on four of them (he completed two of the four for 32 yards). For the game, he was 6-for-8 passing for 71 yards (only two of the passes were thrown more than four yards beyond the line of scrimmage), carried twice for three yards and caught a 27-yard pass from Abbrederis on a trick play. Phillips' best strength is simply his ability to get everybody in the right place, say, "Hut," at the right time, make eight-to-15 semi-accurate passes per game under max-protection and not fumble the ball when sacked (and against good defenses, he will be sacked -- he went down in 12 percent of his pass attempts versus Ohio State and Penn State, defenses that rank 18th and 19th, respectively, in Def. F/+). This is more of a compliment than it sounds, really, and against Nebraska, that was all he had to do. Against Stanford, though, that probably cannot be the case unless the Wisconsin defense is dominating (which is conceivable).

Against Stanford, Phillips is likely going to see quite a bit of pressure, especially in must-pass situations. Nebraska only blitzed once in Phillips' eight pass attempts, primarily because they still had to guard so heavily against the run. But against UCLA on December 1, Stanford blitzed 26 percent of the time, and that was against Brett Hundley, a quarterback with a level of mobility Phillips doesn't possess (Hundley scrambled six times for 18 yards and gained 72 yards from quarterback draws and rollouts). If Wisconsin is unable to establish the run with any reliability, Phillips is going to be on his back a lot. There is a reason why Stanford ranks first in the country in both sacks and tackles-for-loss per game.

The good news, however: Wisconsin might be able to establish the run. At least, they might if you believe the second Stanford-UCLA game carries more heft than the first. In the Pac-12 title game, the threat of Hundley's legs took some pressure off of star running back Johnathan Franklin, and he took advantage, carrying 19 times for 194 yards and two touchdowns. UCLA was able to take advantage of a surprisingly undisciplined set of Stanford linebackers, but in the teams' first meeting, Hundley carried just once (well, he carried once voluntarily -- he was also sacked six times), and Franklin was held severely in check (21 carries for 65 yards).

If quarterback mobility is a requirement for ground success versus Stanford, Wisconsin could be in trouble. But through motion and multiple threats, Wisconsin was able to simulate a dual-threat attack without Phillips ever running the ball. Gordon carried the ball frequently on jet sweeps, and most Wisconsin plays involved at least one man in motion and at least one ball fake. (It was breathtaking to watch, really.)

(Wisconsin will also use a little bit of Wildcat formation in short-yardage situations. They did so five times against Nebraska with James White behind center, gaining 29 yards and scoring three times.)

For the most part, in both games UCLA operated out of a one-back, shotgun alignment against Stanford. The Bruins typically lined up with three or four wideouts -- something Wisconsin won't necessarily do -- and gained 285 yards in 29 rushes out of such an alignment. That suits Wisconsin just fine; the Badgers will pummel you on the ground, but they won't necessarily do so with a 260-pound fullback leading the way. They carried 22 times out of a one-back alignment against Nebraska and gained a silly 391 yards.

Looking at season-long numbers, Stanford's defense still holds an edge when Wisconsin has the ball. The Cardinal are fifth in the country in Rushing S&P+ and are Top 5 in most advanced categories, and the Badgers have a clear, distinct weakness right now (passing), even if they mitigate said weakness rather well with strengths. Still, if final impressions matter, it is difficult to ignore that Wisconsin's offense looked nearly immortal in its last contest … and Stanford looked all sorts of mortal.

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Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE

Kevin Hogan changed everything.

Prospects, even really good ones, develop at their own pace. Sometimes things click immediately, sometimes the player needs a redshirt year, and sometimes he needs a little bit longer. Or, sometimes he just needs an opportunity.

Redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan was a reasonably touted east coast prospect when he signed with Stanford in the class of 2011, but heading into fall camp, he was an afterthought in the race to replace Andrew Luck. Junior Josh Nunes and sophomore Brett Nottingham were the main participants in that race, one that Nunes eventually won.

Nunes completed 52 percent of his passes and rushed for 110 yards, not including sacks, in parts of nine games. But Hogan continued to develop behind the scenes, got some reps in a Wildcat package, surpassed Nottingham for No. 2 on the depth chart and, when Nunes struggled at the start of the Colorado game, surpassed Nunes for No. 1. All four of his career starts have come against quality competition (Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA twice), but he is still completing 73 percent of his passes, with nine touchdowns to three interceptions, and his mobility, both in terms of gaining yards on the ground and buying time to throw the ball, has been spectacular.

It has taken pressure off of running back, and one-man offense, Stepfan Taylor, and it has taken Stanford to a new level. After the Colorado game, Stanford ranked 72nd in Off. F/+; the Cardinal have risen 26 spots, to 46th, since Hogan began starting. That is a rather dramatic rise.

Despite its fullbacks-and-tight-ends reputation, Stanford spends quite a bit of time in a one-back, shotgun set, and it has worked wonderfully to complement Hogan's skill set. In the two UCLA games, Stanford rushed 33 times out of a one-back set (usually in the shotgun, usually with 3-4 wide) and gained 219 yards (6.6 per carry). They still went to more of a power set rather frequently and with decent success (49 carries for 215 yards in these two games). Hogan carried 10 times for 85 yards, which distracted a bit from Taylor's struggles; Taylor gained 142 yards in just 20 carries in the first UCLA-Stanford game but gained just 78 in 24 in the second.

Hogan's mobility could be vital for taking heat off of Taylor, but it could also pay off on passing downs. Wisconsin's defense is outstanding early in a set of downs, but can lose leverage; the Badgers rank eighth in the country in Standard Downs S&P+, but they fall to 50th on passing downs. Despite a pair of stellar linebackers in Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, the Badgers are rather passive on second- and third-and-long.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, mind you: Wisconsin never sent more than four pass rushers after Nebraska's Taylor Martinez but still brought him down six times in 39 pass attempts. And you can certainly get to Hogan at times. UCLA sacked him three times in 24 passing downs pass attempts. But Hogan was still able to extend quite a few plays and completed 14 of 21 passing downs passes for 131 yards as well.

Really, all eyes will be on Hogan in this matchup. Wisconsin should be able to manage the Stanford run game enough to force a solid number of second- and third-and-long situations (aside from Taylor Martinez's incredible, improved 76-yard touchdown run early in the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin held Nebraska to 4.7 yards per carry), and corners Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie should win their battle against Stanford wideouts who don't tend to gain many yards after catch. But if Hogan is allowed to buy enough time to eventually find tight end Zach Ertz or, perhaps, conference title game hero Drew Terrell (four catches for 70 yards), and extend drives, the grueling, power aspect of Stanford's offense could very much come into play.

This game will turn on...

...passing downs (second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more). How well can Wisconsin's offense avoid them, and how well can Stanford's offense convert them?

Bottom line:

The last Big Ten coach to win a fourth Rose Bowl was Woody Hayes in 1974. It's been a while.

Despite retiring seven years ago, Barry Alvarez could soon join that fraternity. He inherits a team that is better than its record, is coming off of its best performance of the season (of course, the bowl break will tamp down most of that momentum) and is likely to play pretty well.

The problem for Wisconsin is that Stanford's defense is a little bit better than the Badgers', and with Hogan running the show, the Stanford offense is pretty comparable, too. This is absolutely a closer matchup than the poll rankings would suggest, but Stanford still holds the edge.

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