PASADENA, Calif. -There weren’t any surprises New Year’s Day at the Granddaddy of Them All. Two teams, two old-school styles of football and two relentless defenses graced the field in a low-scoring, smashmouth affair that many already saw coming.
But, on one particular afternoon, No. 6 Stanford’s defense (12-2, 8-1 Pac-12) shined brighter than anything Wisconsin (8-6, 4-4 Big Ten) could put on the field, dictating the tempo of the game and batting down critical passes in a 20-14 Cardinal win.
“We were defeated by a very good Stanford football team,” interim head coach Barry Alvarez said. “They didn’t surprise me how they played, as you saw that on films, they’ve been a very consistent all year.”
Stanford’s talented front seven in the 3-4 defense constantly bruised Wisconsin’s run game and never allowed much of an offensive tempo, as the Badgers allowed the Cardinal to record four tackles for a loss and five running plays for no gain.
One of those plays was a fourth and goal for Wisconsin at Stanford’s 1-yard line, a play where Mequon native and Cardinal senior defensive end Ben Gardner slipped off of a block from Badger left tackle Ricky Wagner and stuffed running back James White in the backfield. One of the few key moments of the game, the play resulted in a turnover on downs in the opening drive of the second quarter and robbed the Badgers of a critical touchdown at a juncture of the game where they were down 14-0.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the game was the height of the Cardinal’s down defensive linemen in the game, as defensive ends Gardner and Henry Anderson each recorded a pass breakup and got their hands in the passing lanes when they weren’t harassing Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips.
Gardner (six tackles on the game) and Anderson (three tackles) had perhaps the best height of any defensive end duo UW had faced the entire season, with Gardner standing at 6-foot-4 and Anderson at 6-foot-6.
“They are very tall,” Phillips said. “I don’t think I have a low release, but I think it’s almost a credit to our offensive line because they didn’t allow those guys to get in. The only thing you can do whenever you get stoned at the line is to jump up and try to tip balls and that’s really the only chance they had.”
Phillips point was valid, as Wisconsin’s offensive line never allowed Stanford to sack their quarterback. The Cardinal’s lone sack came thanks to an intentional grounding penalty on Melvin Gordon on an attempted trick play on a jet-sweep in the first quarter.
But while Stanford recorded just three total pass breakups, those numbers don’t reflect the total times the Stanford defensive line was able to get its hands on Wisconsin passes. Numerous passes were deflected, including a lucky bounce for UW that saw a deflected ball fall into the hands of wide receiver Jared Abbrederis for 22 yards and a first down, as the next play ended in a Montee Ball touchdown run and brought the score to 14-7 in the second quarter.
The most important tipped ball of the day came when Stanford defensive end Josh Mauro lined up at nose tackle. With the score 20-14 in Stanford’s favor with just a little over two minutes remaining in the game, Phillips stepped back to pass. Even though he was double-teamed and stalemated by Badgers center Travis Frederick and left guard Ryan Groy, Mauro extended both his hands and was able to jump up, catching his left hand on the ball as Phillips targeted an open Jacob Pedersen.
As the ball changed trajectory it found the awaiting arms of Stanford’s Usua Amanam. And when the Cardinal nickelback stood up to show the crowd his prize to screaming roars of approval from the team’s fans, it was all but over for Wisconsin.
“I really thought we were going to be able to go down (on that last drive) and move the ball,” Frederick said. “The pass protection was pretty decent, especially since it was against a great Stanford defense that had so many sacks.
“They got a hand on the ball and tipped it up and that’s the story.”
But Stanford’s style of play on the defensive line also allowed room for Phillips to break the contain defense and escape the pocket, plays that kept several key Wisconsin’s drives alive. He finished with 64 yards on five carries in his first career Rose Bowl start.
Maybe that’s what kept a healthy Joel Stave on the sideline for the Badgers was Phillips’ ability to extend the play, as the veteran used a crafty move – faking a step out of bounds on the left sideline – to create a 38-yard gain on a first and 10 during the waning two minutes before halftime, setting up the Badgers’ tying touchdown pass to Jordan Fredrick six plays later.
Though the Badgers’ offensive line kept the Cardinal at bay early, Stanford adjusted to Wisconsin’s 14-point second quarter to hold their opponent scoreless for the entire second half. Like many cases this season, it ended up being a tale of two halves for UW, as the team gained 219 total yards on offense in the first half, but recorded just 82 yards in the second half.
“We just weren’t able to produce what we needed to produce as an offensive line,” Frederick said. “We didn’t play the way we needed to in the second half.”