Badgers must contain Stephan Taylor
It’s been a change in narrative for the Wisconsin Badgers during the 2012 season. For the past two years, the University of Wisconsin relied rather heavily on its record-setting offense, but this year, on several occasions, it’s been the defense that’s kept the Badgers competitive.
When the defense relented it was usually because it tired out near the end. So for Wisconsin to top Stanford, it may be a necessity to stop its punishing run attack before it can take a toll on UW’s stamina.
The Cardinal ground game is headed by Stepfan Taylor, a 5-foot-11, 215-pound running back who plays a major role in the offense overall. Apart from being second on the team with 38 catches, the senior has covered 1,442 yards and rushed for 12 scores as the Cardinal’s feature back.
He’ll try to navigate a Wisconsin front seven much improved from a year ago that allows 124.5 rushing yards a game, just shy of third place in the Big Ten. Stanford, meanwhile, averages 173.3 yards per contest, sixth in the Pac-12.
The UW defense, lead by middle linebacker Chris Borland, has the physicality to match Taylor and his strong-armed offensive line. If Wisconsin can clog the holes, the weight of the game will fall on the shoulders of Kevin Hogan, a freshman quarterback who’s started the past four games for the Cardinal.
Hogan’s turned in impressive performances in each of his starts, but the Badgers would prefer him to take charge instead of Taylor.
Wisconsin offensive line vs. Stanford front seven
For a Wisconsin offensive line that has faced an endless stream of adversity this season, the toughest test may yet remain.
When Travis Frederick and Co. line up in the trenches Jan. 1, staring down their facemasks will be one of best seven-man fronts in all of college football. Running a high-powered 3-4 defense, the Cardinal is anchored by junior outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who leads the team with a single statistic that makes every opposing quarterback cringe — 10 sacks.
Helping Murphy break through the line of scrimmage is Wisconsin native and former Homestead High School star Ben Gardner. The junior defensive end — one of two defensive stalwarts on the team with 7.5 sacks — will prove a constant challenge to either right tackle Rob Havenstein or left tackle Ricky Wagner. If he wins that battle, Garner will be a frustrating disruption to the Badgers’ running game.
Together, Stanford’s defense surrenders an average of only 87.7 yards per game on the ground, third best in the nation. How an offensive line that opened gaping holes against Nebraska in the Big Ten title game fares in the battle at the line will determine if Montee Ball and Co. can help the offense build a steady rhythm.
Melvin Gordon’s edge-bursting speed is reminiscent of that of Oregon tailback De’Anthony Thomas in last year’s Rose Bowl. But the Cardinal D held Thomas to just 43 yards on seven carries in the Cardinal’s upset win ahead of the Pac-12 title game. If the Stanford defense starts to wear down against a mind-numbingly persistent Wisconsin rushing attack, the Badgers may finally earn their first win in Pasadena in three tries.
Curt Phillips throws must be limited
There’s a secret to the Badgers success under Curt Phillips. Want to know what it is?
They run the ball.
In both of Wisconsin’s wins with the fifth-year quarterback the starter, the team has averaged 552 yards on the ground. In the two games they’ve lost with Phillips under the helm? Just 182.
Phillips has shown his ability to make the throws when it’s mattered most this season. He’s shown a knack for the clutch and late second heroics, orchestrating two last-minute comebacks to force overtime in his four starts.
But it isn’t always a good sign for the Badgers when Phillips throws multiple times in a game. In the two losses the Badgers have suffered with Phillips as the starter, he has thrown 25 times in both games. In the two games the Badgers have won with him under center, he threw just seven and eight times.
If Stanford — the Pac-12’s best defense against the run, does stop the Badgers’ run game — Phillips has still shown that he can make the big throw when asked. Although his accuracy has been off at times, he has made consistently accurate throws when rolling out of the pocket. He’s also taken several hits that have made Badger fans cringe, but he still manages to complete the pass.
One thing’s for sure, Phillips is a game manager who knows how to keep the Wisconsin offense going. He’s shown real grit and toughness stepping into the starting role mid-season and it’s well known that the Badger players respect him. We’ll have our eyes on him in Pasadena New Year’s day.
Matt Canada’s play-calling
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has weathered quite the storm during his first season at Wisconsin.
Criticized widely by the press and fans alike for his conservative play calling, Canada put all of that to rest when his team hung up 63 offensive points on the No. 12 team in the nation during the Big Ten Conference Championship.
Canada showed creative play-calling against Nebraska, constantly keeping Wisconsin’s opponent offbalance with massive shifts out of initial formations, the use of the “Barge” and several trick plays.
Throwing the kitchen sink at the Cornhuskers helped reinstall faith and swagger in the offense, but the real question is how the Badgers will respond against the best defense in the Pac-12 and one of the best defenses in the nation.
The last time Wisconsin faced a top-25 defense was Michigan State, who held Wisconsin to 190 yards. While Stanford isn’t a top-five defense like MSU, they still have enough talent to stop Wisconsin’s run game and force Canada to adjust his gameplan early.
And there’s still the matter that when it comes down to it, it was still just one game that Canada seemingly outcoached his opponent. Stanford head coach David Shaw and his defensive coordinator Derek Mason are no slouches. And Canada has shown throughout the season, especially in the second half, that he’s vulnerable to being bested by his opponents adjustments.
If Wisconsin has any hopes of winning in an upset against No. 6 Stanford, Canada will need to continue his creative ways through the entire Rose Bowl. If he threw the sink at the Huskers this past Saturday, he’ll need to throw the kitchen in too if he wants to bring the Badgers their first Rose Bowl win since 2000.