LOS ANGELES — One of the most intriguing and important battles of the 2013 Rose Bowl will come in a part of the field that the casual fan often overlooks: the battle in the trenches.
Lining up across from a typically oversized Wisconsin offensive line on which the five linemen average 326 pounds will be the nation’s third-ranked rushing defense. Heading into its third straight BCS Bowl game, Stanford has surrendered just 87.7 yards on the ground per game and leads the nation with 56 sacks this year.
“We like to compare them to Penn State because they play smart, they play with a lot of heart, and they play together, they play for each other, which is a very difficult defense to defeat,” senior running back Montee Ball said. “ … They do a great job of attacking the run.”
A trio of linebackers in Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy anchor the Pac-12 champions’ 3-4 defense. Wisconsin native and Homestead High School graduate Ben Gardner — who boasts 7.5 sacks on the year, tied for second on the team — will likely be a constant nuisance for Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips.
What the Cardinal give up in size to Wisconsin’s O-line they make up for in technique, using speedy footwork and block-shedding moves to quickly break through anyone in their path.
“They’re very technique-sound and obviously fundamentally sound,” left guard Ryan Groy said. “And it’s something [where] we have to get great movement and have to get up to the second level.”
On the opposite side of the ball, Stanford will face a difficult test in trying to temper Ball’s bulldozing runs up the middle and the speed of James White and Melvin Gordon around the edge. Phillips has yet to prove he can be a consistent threat through the air, meaning just how much space the offensive line can open up for its three running backs could very well decide if Wisconsin can build an offensive rhythm.
“They definitely move guys off the ball and re-create the line of scrimmage, and it’s a tough challenge for our guys up front,” Thomas said at Saturday’s Rose Bowl Media Day. “We have to dump blocks, we have to make sure we don’t get pushed back and open up those creases for Ball and those other running backs. It’s definitely going to be a big challenge for the defensive line.”
As Athletic Director and Rose Bowl head coach Barry Alvarez noted, the skill on both sides of the line of scrimmage may increase the importance of other areas of the game.
“I think the special teams could play a big part in this game,” Alvarez said Saturday. “Watching Stanford, they’re similar to us. They very physical, they’re not going to make a lot of mistakes — you have to beat them.”
Ball approaches final chapter
When the final seconds tick off the play clock at the Rose Bowl Tuesday, the final chapter of Montee Ball’s collegiate football career will be officially sealed.
The Doak Walker Award winner who ranks second in Wisconsin history (behind only Ron Dayne) with 5,040 career rushing yards said that he is starting to realize his name will soon be limited to record books rather than box scores. One of those moments came when Gordon mentioned they should record UW’s recent trip to Disneyland since this is the senior’s last call.
“This week it has [sunk in] because you start to realize this is the last time that you’ll be around all these players at the same time,” Ball said. “Coaches, as well, so it’s starting to hit me, and I’ve made sure that I really cherish this a lot.”
The one achievement missing from the senior tailback’s resume is a Rose Bowl victory, as Ball has weathered back-to-back losses in Pasadena to TCU and Oregon over the last two years.
“Very, very excited, grateful for everything I’ve accomplished, very fortunate,” he said. “But I want the Rose Bowl. I want the Rose Bowl victory more than anything because that’s something I can share with everybody.”
Another record will be up for grabs Saturday as Ball sits just 150 yards away from Dayne’s Rose Bowl record of 446 career rushing yards.
Phillips to finally see field in Pasadena
The first two times Curt Phillips traveled to the Rose Bowl, he wasn’t even dressed for the game.
After tearing his ACL three separate times, the oft-sidelined quarterback made a surprising surge into the starting role after Joel Stave’s season-ending injury against Michigan State and Danny O’Brien’s underwhelming performance filling in for the remainder of the overtime loss to the Spartans.
“I saw my parents … they were joking around that, saying it’s so much better not seeing you limping through this hotel,” said Phillips, who will make just his fifth career start at the Rose Bowl. “So it does make it that much more fun.
“I’m just trying to live in the moment and have fun with it.”
Alvarez also did not rule out the potential of Stave returning to the field Tuesday, as the redshirt freshman who made six starts earlier this season has been cleared to play.
“He’s definitely in the gameplan,” Alvarez said. “(Offensive coordinator) Matt Canada and I talked about that, Stave brings a little more to the table. He can throw the ball downfield; he brings a little more ammo.”