NCF Nation: 2012 Rose Bowl

Cardinal win with Cardinal ball

January, 1, 2013

PASADENA, Calif. -- Beauty is in the eye of whichever team has more points at the end of the game. Beholder be damned.

This is 2012 Stanford football -- white knuckles and all. If you want pretty, the Getty Museum is on the other side of the 405.

Anyone expecting anything different in the 99th Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio probably hasn’t watched much Cardinal ball this season. Stanford did what it does best: get a lead, hold a lead and win the game in the fourth quarter. It was what guided Stanford (12-2) to a Pac-12 championship, and it’s what enabled the Cardinal to beat Wisconsin 20-14 on Tuesday night.

“We’re not built for style points and we don’t blow teams out,” said Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner, who tallied six tackles, including a critical stop on a Wisconsin fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line. “It’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight and this one was no different. It’s going to be a four-quarter game with us. Wisconsin played very hard. They didn’t make it easy on us. It’s one of those things where at each pivotal moment someone new stepped up and made a play.”

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsStanford limited Wisconsin running back Montee Ball to just 13 yards in the second half.
After jumping out to a 14-0 lead and a 17-14 halftime lead, the Cardinal defense pitched a second-half shutout -- holding the Badgers (8-6) to 82 total yards in the second half. Running back Montee Ball, the Doak Walker Award winner, rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown, but was held to just 13 yards in the second half.

“We pride ourselves on being able to drag teams into the deep water in the fourth quarter,” linebacker Chase Thomas said. “We’ve been there plenty of times. … We’re used to making the big stops when we have to. That’s how we’re built.”

Indeed. This is the 10th time this year Stanford has been involved in a game that was decided by a touchdown or less. And they’ve won eight of those.

“We were prepared for this,” said running back Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown. “We were ready for this kind of game. We’ve seen it before and we’re a mature enough team to be able to handle the close games.”

But it’s the Notre Dame game -- a 20-13 loss in overtime in South Bend on Oct. 13 (the last time Stanford lost) -- that head coach David Shaw singled out as the turning point for the season. You may remember a critical instant replay involving Taylor that didn’t go Stanford’s way at the end of that game.

“We could sit, sulk and think about what could have been,” Shaw said, recalling how he addressed the team. “Or we can say, 'From now on, we’re going to finish games. Don’t leave it up to officials. Finish games.' … That was kind of a galvanizing moment for us. We lost that game and it was so heartfelt and so devastating. It was right in front of us. We made a collective decision that we were not going to let games slip away from us. So we went on a tear. Eight games in a row. We kept the same mentality. We never got too high, we never got too low. That game really propelled us to this one.”

And now the Cardinal have their first Rose Bowl title since 1972 and their second victory in a BCS bowl game in the past three years. It would be three in a row except for a loss in overtime last year to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. Don’t think this win doesn’t wash a bit of the bad taste out of their mouths from last season.

“Oh yeah, more than a little bit,” Gardner said. “This is pretty darn sweet. We know what it’s like to be in tight games and we never had a doubt.”

Stanford has drawn comparisons to a Big Ten team for its physical style of play and run-first, stop-the-run mentality. And it was on full display Tuesday night -- much as it’s been all season.

“It’s football,” Shaw said. “It’s really, really physical football. There were guys that were tired. Every play you could hear the pads popping. It’s the kind of football that I grew up watching. And I’m proud that our guys played that style of football.”

Anything less wouldn’t be Stanford.
PASADENA, Calif. -- The Hollywood ending was all set up. Wisconsin, the underdog in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, would reverse its recent history here under the steady guidance of the old pro who'd come out of retirement for one last assignment.

The opening scene played out as you'd expect. Hall of Fame coach Barry Alvarez delivered a rousing pregame speech in the locker room, during which he told the players "Wisconsin invented physical."

"I have never seen a bunch of guys so excited," defensive lineman Brendan Kelly said. "I was so sure we were going to win this game."

But the Badgers' Rose Bowl appearances instead keep unreeling like an unimaginative sequel. For a third straight year, they came up short, this time 20-14 to Stanford. For a third straight year, they were unable to make a big play in the closing minutes. For a third straight year, they walked dejectedly off the field as confetti rained down on their opponents.

Oh, there were many different circumstances this year. Alvarez took over the team after Bret Bielema left and brought some swagger. Assistant coaches hugged each other at the end of the game, knowing they would be parting ways on Tuesday when Gary Andersen begins remaking the staff and the program. With an 8-6 final record, Wisconsin players had to listen to one obnoxious fan shout "O-H-I-O" and remind them that Ohio State had the better team this year as they trudged into the tunnel to their locker room.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith and Wisconsin Badgers
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergWisconsin has now lost its third straight Rose Bowl.
But those are just plot details. The ending remains unchanged.

"The immediate reaction is the same," linebacker Chris Borland said. "It's heartbreaking."

Wisconsin became the third team ever to lose three straight Rose Bowls, the first since Michigan did so from 1976-78. Each has brought its own set of painful memories. In 2010, a failed two-point conversion on a much-debated play call doomed the Badgers against TCU. Last year, some questionable clock management down the stretch left star quarterback Russell Wilson begging for an extra second at the Oregon 25 in a seven-point defeat.

This time, the Badgers had to play from behind the whole way after giving up two early touchdowns to Stanford, which broke out some new offensive wrinkles it hadn't shown on film. Wisconsin answered, though, with two second-quarter scores to slice the lead to 17-14. It seemingly had all the momentum after Curt Phillips' touchdown pass to Jordan Fredrick just 19 seconds before halftime.

But the Badgers would not score again in a second half where they managed only 82 total yards. There were opportunities, like a deep pass to the Cardinal red zone that Chase Hammond dropped before he got creamed by safety Jordan Richards. Wisconsin defensive backs missed a few chances to pick off Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan in his own territory.

Alvarez also chose to punt rather than go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Cardinal 46 near the end of the third quarter. It was an understandable decision, the way the Badgers defense was playing. But Wisconsin would never again have such good field position.

After Stanford earned some breathing room with a fourth-quarter field goal, the Badgers got one more possession, with a chance to drive for the winning touchdown.

"I felt like maybe we were a team of destiny," Alvarez said.

Phillips led the offense to the Stanford 49. Then, he looked for an out route to Jared Abbrederis, which was covered. He spotted Kenzel Doe on a crossing pattern; it wasn't open. On his third read, he tried to squeeze one in to tight end Jacob Pedersen but was intercepted by Usua Amanam with 2:03 to go.


"The game was in our hands and we just didn't capitalize," said star running back Montee Ball, who ran for exactly 100 yards but only 13 in the second half. "It's extremely frustrating because we had this game."

The Badgers have said that a lot, not just in Pasadena but all season long. They lost six games this year by a combined 25 points, including three in overtime. We thought this Rose Bowl would look a lot like a Big Ten game because of Stanford's physical nature and similar style. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, it looked a lot like the Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State losses, right down to the similar score.

"Our whole offseason approach will be to take the mindset of finishing," Kelly said. "If we do that, we'll be an unbelievable team. But that's the last little attribute we need."

The program is about to go through a lot of changes with Andersen, who watched the game from the sidelines but mostly kept his distance the past few weeks. The Badgers will have to contend with surging and now bowl-eligible Ohio State in the Leaders Division. Even if they manage to make a fourth straight Rose Bowl appearance, they might not find as favorable an athletic matchup as this one was. Stanford might not have invented physical, but the Cardinal perfected it. And Wisconsin won't have a Hall of Famer on the sidelines.

"It was awesome to play for Coach Alvarez," Phillips said. "I just hate the fact that we couldn't get him another [Rose Bowl win]."

The Hollywood ending would have seen the Badgers carry Alvarez off on their shoulders in triumph. But this story is one that keeps repeating itself.

Pregame from the Rose Bowl

January, 1, 2013
PASDADENA, Calif. -- This is literally familiar turf for both Wisconsin and Stanford -- the participants in the 99th Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.

For the Badgers, it’s their third consecutive trip to Pasadena after coming up short the previous two years. For the Cardinal, this is their second time playing at the Rose Bowl in their last three games. The regular season finale was here against UCLA – a 35-17 win on Nov. 24.

Both of these teams are used to the BCS bowl game spotlight. Along with Oregon, Stanford and Wisconsin are the only teams in the country playing in a BCS bowl game for the third straight year.

While the venue has been the same for the Badgers, it’s been a new destination all three times for the Cardinal. It was Miami and Orange Bowl in 2010, Arizona and the Fiesta Bowl last year and now they traveled a mere 317 miles from The Farm to Pasadena. In case you were wondering, if the Cardinal did qualify for the Sugar Bowl next year, they would be the second team in history to complete the BCS cycle. Miami did it from 2000-2003 going Sugar/Rose/Fiesta/Orange.

The Cardinal enter the game having won seven straight – the last loss coming on Oct. 13 to Notre Dame. Mid-year replacement quarterback Kevin Hogan has won four straight games – all against ranked opponents. Despite the early success, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said this is just the tip of what Hogan is capable of.

“He’s still got a ways to go,” Hamilton said. “He’s played four games, but he’s still got a ways to go. But even so, his poise is what makes him a special player in my opinion. Obviously, the instincts and the talent is what prevails when it’s all said and done. But he’s still a work in progress.”

Stanford keys for Rose Bowl

January, 1, 2013
Three keys for Stanford in today’s Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio:

1. Be yourself: The Cardinal got to this point by doing what they do best -- dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and playing hard-nosed, power football. Offensively, it’s power left, power right, rinse, repeat. Once that’s been established on offense, the middle is usually nice and open for tight end Zach Ertz on the play-action passes. Sure, there may be a wrinkle or two, and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton might window dress a couple of things. But in the end, the Cardinal should feed Stepfan Taylor 20-25 times and let him do what he’s done exceptionally well for the past three seasons. Defensively, it’s stop the run first and foremost. That presents a challenge, considering Wisconsin is led by Montee Ball, the Doak Walker award winner, who rushed for 1,730 yards and 21 touchdowns.

2. The Hogan factor: What Kevin Hogan has brought to the Stanford offense is the ability to make plays with his legs and move the pocket. While Taylor will get plenty of touches, Hogan’s feet enable the Cardinal to run more bootlegs and a read-option package that keeps defenses guessing. He won’t be the centerpiece of the running game -- nor should he be with Taylor and a capable stable backing him up. But don’t be surprised to see a handful of designed runs for Hogan. Plus, if something isn’t there downfield, you’ll probably see a few runs by Hogan that aren’t by design. He’s proven to be an apt scrambler and has a knack for picking up first downs.

3. Penetrate: One of the things that makes Stanford’s front seven so talented is that it can usually get pressure with just four defenders, which frees up the linebackers to either create tackles for a loss, sacks or wreak general havoc in the backfield. Plus, if the Cardinal are able to get penetration early without sending extra blitzers, it opens up the defensive playbook later in the game for stunts and blitzes that the Badgers haven’t seen yet. Stanford leads the nation with 56 sacks, which is the most of any team since the NCAA started keeping it as a team record in 2005. The less they can do without getting too exotic early, the better off they are. But if that four-man rush is established, the occasional blitz should keep the Badgers off balance.

Pregame: Rose Bowl

January, 1, 2013
Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5)

Who to watch: The running backs. Wisconsin’s Montee Ball -- the Doak Walker award winner -- and Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor -- a three-time 1,000-yard rusher -- are two of the best in the game. Both are the engines that make their respective machines go. Each team will work furiously to establish a running game. So while you are watching two of the elite running backs in the country, keep an eye on the lines as well -- because how each team’s big boys do will go a long way toward determining how the running backs do.

What to watch: For sure, the fourth quarter. These two teams have combined to play six overtime games, Stanford has had to overcome ties or deficits six times in the fourth quarter, and Wisconsin has lost all five of its games by a combined 19 points (four field goals and a touchdown). If this game is a microcosm of these teams’ seasons, then there should be high drama up until the final play.

Why to watch: Aside from the fact that it’s the Granddaddy, this game is oozing with subplots. You have Barry Alvarez making his return to coaching -- although for just one game. You have Stanford playing in its third consecutive BCS bowl game (Wisconsin as well, for that matter) even after the departure of Andrew Luck and a midseason quarterback change from Josh Nunes to Kevin Hogan. You have a Wisconsin team that some say backed into the Rose Bowl, and you have mirror teams with nearly identical philosophies.

Predictions: In case you missed it Tuesday morning, you can see the predictions from Pac-12 bloggers Kevin Gemmell and Ted Miller here. This is what the Big Ten bloggers are thinking.
LOS ANGELES -- Before a Stanford offensive lineman ever sees the field, he must first negotiate “The Room.” And The Room can be tougher than any drill, any conditioning program or even any defensive end or linebacker he will face. Because it’s in the The Room where line coach Mike Bloomgren not-so-silently passes judgment on who does or doesn’t have the chops.

And it’s not just Bloomgren. It’s the veterans, too -- Sam Schwartzstein, David Yankey, Kevin Danser – who will self-police and critique those who desire more playing time.

“Everything those guys get in that room is earned,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “And it’s a tough room. You walk in that room, you better have thick skin. Cause it’s not just Mike that’s going to get on you. Sammy’s gonna get on you. David Yankey’s gonna get on you. If you can handle that room and come out and perform, you deserve to play.”

[+] EnlargeDavid Yankey
AP Photo/Rob HoltDavid Yankey and Stanford's offensive line have kept grinding down foes despite constant turnover.
For as much credit as Stanford gets for overcoming the losses of Toby Gerhart, Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck over the past few seasons, forgotten is that the offensive line has had to re-invent itself several times over with multiple standouts leaving for the NFL. The philosophy remains the same. But the personalities of each line have changed throughout the years.

“It starts in recruiting,” said Bloomgren, who began his career as a graduate assistant at Alabama and cut his teeth for four seasons as an offensive assistant with the New York Jets. “We were fortunate to plug in the three new guys last year and have them grow (Schwartzstein, Yankey and Cameron Fleming). Then you lose David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin a year early and it’s like, wow, now we have to do it again. David Yankey comes around and wins the Morris Trophy (given to the Pac-12's top lineman) and is a consensus All-American. It’s a compliment to those guys and how they work and striving to get better. They call themselves the Tunnel Worker’s Union. Those guys buy into that stuff.”

Along with assistant Ron Crook -- who manages the tight ends and offensive tackles -- Bloomgren also coordinates Stanford’s rushing attack, which has produced a three-time 1,000-yard rusher in Stepfan Taylor. And like any good running back, Taylor knows where his bread is buttered. He’s rushed for 1,000 yards behind three very different offensive line units.

“They are a lot more goofy than last year,” Taylor said. “They are great guys. I wouldn’t want to be behind any other line. They are physical, tough, smart and athletic. That’s the thing. They are really big athletic guys running around. It all starts with them and to win games, they have to do their job. And we are winning games so they are obviously doing their job.”

Stanford’s downhill, power-running approach is appealing to prospective offensive lineman. And the fact that they have offensive packages that involve as many as eight offensive linemen at a time is also attractive.

“For us, we’ve played one true freshman on the offensive line, up until this year, during the last five years,” Shaw said. “This year we’ve played three. And those guys have earned that. Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy, Josh Garnett. Those guys have earned that. And those guys have taken some beatings in that room. Some verbal assaults, if you will.

“… There are a lot of places that play five starters and the rest of the guys watch. They’ve had success and that’s great. But we’re going to play eight -- at least eight -- just in the Rose Bowl. And we’ve been that way all year. If we can play nine, we’ll play nine. A young guy comes in and knows he’s going to have a chance to play. That he won’t sit on the bench for three years. If he does it right. If he can survive in our room, he’ll get a chance to play.”

Danser -- who became a full-time starter this year after seeing lots of time the last couple of years as a reserve -- has seen some great offensive linemen come and go. And he’s witnessed each season how the line has rediscovered a new identity and how each group takes on a life of its own.

“It really comes down to the work we do in the winter, spring and summer,” Danser said. “It really forms this unit. It takes leaders like Sam and leaders in the past like Chase Beeler, James McGillicuddy, David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin, Andrew Phillips. It’s that leadership that makes this a great unit.”

And the trio of freshmen who have made their debuts this year know they are getting their trial by fire on the field -- and in The Room.

“The coaches and the older guys won’t let anything slide,” Garnett said. “They always find something. Yankey tells me you have to find something. You never do it right. Always be nit-picky and find something you did wrong. That’s what we’re all about -- getting to that next level, never being content. You are always looking for the perfect block.”

The evolution of Kevin Hogan

December, 28, 2012
Kevin HoganEzra Shaw/Getty ImagesKevin Hogan has a chance to have a 5-0 start to his career with a win in the Rose Bowl.
LOS ANGELES -- In a sense, Kevin Hogan caught a break. He didn’t have to be the guy who followed Andrew Luck. Instead, he was the guy who followed the guy who followed Andrew Luck.

And while Josh Nunes helped the Cardinal to a fairly successful, albeit inconsistent 7-2 start, Hogan has stepped in as the starting quarterback and gone 4-0 against four ranked teams and was named the MVP of the Pac-12 championship game. And he's leading his team into the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio against Wisconsin on New Year's Day. Not exactly a terrible start to a career.

“It’s helped him a lot [to sit early in the year],” said Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. “To have an opportunity to get those additional reps -- it’s been amazing to watch his evolution and development over a short time. The one thing, though, that I think is his best attribute is his poise. Nothing is too big for him. He’s very much even-keeled. He never gets too high with the highs and too low with the lows and that’s allowed him to make some big games in big plays.”

Both Nunes and Hogan started their careers 3-0, which hadn’t been done at Stanford since 1991 when Steve Stenstrom took over in the fifth game of the season and won seven straight. But the biggest difference between the two has been the Hogan’s mobility and efficiency in the red zone. Inside the 20 he’s completed 14 of 16 passes with seven touchdowns. He’s also averaging 7.1 yards per carry on his “non-sack” rushes and has picked up 15 first downs.

“Josh made a ton of big plays for us in the SC game as well as the Arizona game,” Hamilton said. “But I asked myself at times, man, if we had the ability to run more bootlegs and really open up the offense against a team like Notre Dame, would the result be different?”

Quiet and unassuming -- much like his predecessor’s predecessor -- the 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt freshman from McLean, Va., has led his team to wins over Oregon State, at Oregon and twice against UCLA. He understands that even though there is a Nunes-buffer between him and Luck, whose credentials need no re-hashing, there will inevitably be comparisons. He meets said comparisons with a good attitude and a bit of self-deprecation.

“I’ve heard it, but I try to stay away from that,” Hogan said. “We’re different players. He’s an amazing player. He’s like an idol. But I wouldn’t want to be compared to him. I don’t think that does him justice.”

Then again, Luck never led his team to a Pac-12 championship. Luck never won at Autzen Stadium. Luck never got his team to the Rose Bowl nor started his career 3-0. But Luck also didn’t have the luxury of watching half a season from the sidelines.

“It was the best case scenario for him as a quarterback to watch Josh and get a sense of what our identity was an offense before he became the starter and understand how important it is for our quarterback to be able to manage the offense,” Hamilton said.

When the quarterback competition started, there were five in the mix. When spring ball ended, head coach David Shaw had declared that Nunes and Brett Nottingham had separated themselves from the pack. And when he announced Nunes as the starter in the fall, there was also a bit of “look out for this Hogan kid.”

The tools were there. The concepts weren’t.

“I think my knowledge of the playbook held me back,” Hogan said. “It’s challenging. The coaches knew I wasn’t ready at the time. Just throughout the season, studying it more and more and knowing what I needed to focus on really helped.”

And now he’s had an additional month to get more familiar with the playbook, the process and the overall concepts. No player in college football may have benefited more from the time off between the end of the season and the bowl game than Hogan.

“It’s been big,” Hogan said. “It’s really allowed me more time to study film and be a better manger of the game.”

Stanford ready for another elite RB

December, 28, 2012
LOS ANGELES -- Stanford’s defense has to face yet another Doak Walker finalist. Heck, that’s just another day at the office.

In fact, this is the fourth straight game that the Cardinal will be seeing one of the three finalists for the award given to the nation’s top running back. Only this time, they are facing the guy who brought home the hardware.

First, they held Oregon’s Kenjon Barner to just 66 yards on 21 carries. Then in they kept UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin to just 65 yards on 21 carries. In the Pac-12 title game, also against UCLA, Franklin had a monster game, rushing for 194 yards on 19 carries. But hey, these guys are Doak Walker finalists for a reason, right?

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Mary Langenfeld/USA TODAY SportsStanford has already faced Doak Walker finalists Kenjon Barner and Johnathan Franklin. In the Rose Bowl it gets Doak Walker winner Montee Ball.
Now the Cardinal will complete the Tour de Doak when they take on winner Montee Ball and the Wisconsin Badgers on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl presented by Vizio. And Ball knows the Stanford front seven is as advertised.

“They're very physical,” he said. “They're big. They're big up front. The linebackers are very physical. They play extremely smart, which allows for them to make great plays … They're a lot faster than people think and they'll shock you at times because they're great athletes.”

To win the Doak Walker award, you have to be a pretty good athlete as well. And Ball is that. He’s rushed for 1,730 yards and 21 touchdowns while averaging 133.1 yards per game.

“First off, he's a great runner behind his pads,” said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov.” It really goes unnoticed, but every time he gets hit, he falls forward 5 more yards, which makes a big difference, because you're looking at second-and-7 or second-and-5, for the dynamic of what you're doing from an offensive perspective. He's elusive, and I think he's faster this year than he has been in years past. So he's definitely going to be terrific competition for us.”

Of course, this isn’t anything the Cardinal haven’t seen in the past. Stanford boasts the nation’s No. 3 rush defense and is allowing just 87.69 yards per game. Considering the competition they’ve faced (let’s not forget to include consensus All-American Ka'Deem Carey from Arizona in there as well) that’s an awfully impressive season-long statistic.

“They do a good job,” said Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada. “They're well-coached. They are. It's not clinic talk. They're gap sound. Each week, I think we can do this. Some weeks it works, some weeks it doesn't. There's always a chink. I'm sure they've watched us for a month; this is how they're going to attack us. I'm sure they're right. But they're well coached, smart football players. They do a lot and their kids don't make mistakes.”

Just because Stanford has seen three All-Americans during the course of its season, it doesn’t mean they can take Ball or the Wisconsin rushing attack lightly.

“When you talk about Montee Ball, you're talking about one of the best in the country, Doak Walker Award winner,” said Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason. “He's got speed, size, and great vision. Finds seams and creases, and the one thing that he's been able to do is get better as games have gone on. So I think this group is formidable. They're probably one of the best that we'll see all year, and that presents a challenge.”

Wisconsin is also giving Stanford its due respect. But they aren't going to be intimidated by the numbers.

"I think it's going to be a much different test," said Wisconsin center Travis Frederick. "I can't say it's going to be tougher. Their defense has done tremendous things and they deserve to be ranked where they are ... It's going to be a little bit different, but I think it's going to be a comparable challenge, and potentially a greater challenge."

Ball, Taylor deserve Rose Bowl spotlight

December, 28, 2012
The Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio features the FBS all-time touchdown king and the leading rusher in Stanford history. Running backs Montee Ball and Stepfan Taylor undoubtedly command the lion's share of the attention from each defense.

Yet neither star may be getting enough attention from the public at large.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Richard Mackson/USA Today SportsMontee Ball focused on his production after contact this season. Wise move. He enters the Rose Bowl with 21 TDs.
That's a strange thing to say about the 2012 Doak Walker Award winner (Wisconsin's Ball) and a three-year starter playing in his second straight BCS game (the Cardinal's Taylor). But are we sure we truly appreciate the accomplishments of both men?

Ball has received plenty of acclaim for his record 82 career touchdowns (76 of them rushing, also a record). Still, he'll end his career having never finished higher than fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting (2011), something future college football historians may have trouble believing. After a slow start this year that was due in part to a preseason assault and a struggling offensive line, Ball was labeled by some as a major disappointment. Such a claim looks ludicrous now for a player who rushed for 1,730 yards and 21 touchdowns.

There are critics who will always be leery of a Wisconsin running back's numbers, believing they are merely a product of the Badgers' powerful offensive line opening massive holes that any decent athlete could run through. In some ways, then, Ball had a better season this year than in 2011, when he led the nation in rushing and tied an FBS record with 39 touchdowns. His running lanes were smaller, and he concentrated more on creating yards after contact.

"The thing that makes Montee so special is that he attacks the line of scrimmage," Wisconsin offensive line coach Bart Miller said. "He gets the ball and runs with fire. He runs the way we play offensive line, and guys love that. We don't want a guy who tiptoes along the line of scrimmage. We want a guy who attacks it, runs a guy over, makes him miss. All those kinds of things are what Montee does."

If Ball is underappreciated, then Taylor is criminally undervalued. He was overshadowed in his own backfield the past couple of years by Andrew Luck. This season, he carried the offense at times as it went through the post-Luck transition and reworked its offensive line, finishing with 1,442 yards and 12 touchdowns. But he had a hard time gaining notice even in his own conference, as the Pac-12 had other outstanding running backs such as UCLA's Johnathan Franklin, Oregon's Kenjon Barner and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey.

[+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireWith a new quarterback and an offensive line in transition, RB Stepfan Taylor fueled Stanford's offense this season.
Franklin and Barner joined Ball as Doak Walker finalists, while Taylor got shut out. As fate would have it, Taylor will finish his career going head-to-head against those three finalists in his final four games (Stanford played UCLA twice). He outgained Barner 161-66 in the win over Oregon. He had 142 yards to Franklin's 65 in the first UCLA game, though Franklin ran for 194 to Taylor's 78 in the Pac-12 title game. More important, the Cardinal won both meetings.

"Stepfan is the kind of guy who would say he doesn't even know who's up for those awards," Stanford running backs coach Mike Sanford said. "But I remind him."

The Cardinal bill Taylor as "the most complete back in America," one who never comes off the field and who excels in pass protection and blocking as well as carrying the ball. Sanford points out that Taylor has fumbled only twice in 340 touches this season. The Cardinal pride themselves on being a physical team, and Taylor helps give them that identity on offense.

"He's the steady rock for us," Sanford said. "Even if things weren't flowing early in the season, we knew he'd be able to almost will himself to keep the chains moving. Very few backs in college football are as well-rounded as him."

Ball and Taylor share much in common. They're each listed at 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds. They're both workhorses -- Ball leads all active FBS players with 900 career carries, while Taylor ranks third with 823.

"When you talk about Montee Ball, you're talking about one of the best in the country," Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said. "He's got speed, size and great vision. Very much like Stepfan Taylor."

Both will be the undisputed stars of this Rose Bowl. And both deserve every bit of the spotlight.

More to Gardner than the mullet

December, 27, 2012
LOS ANGELES -- “Business in the front, party in the back.” That, of course, is the battle cry of those who proudly sport the mullet.

Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner brings a new twist to the old saying: “Business in the front, party in the backfield.”

[+] EnlargeBen Gardner
AP Photo/Jesse BealsStanford's Ben Gardner will keep his mullet for the Rose Bowl.
Known as much for his mullet as his ability register sacks and tackles for a loss, Gardner caught a lot of flak last season from teammates when he decided to chop off the mullet before the Fiesta Bowl -- which turned out to be a 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State.

There are a lot of different reasons why Stanford lost last season (you can start with Justin Blackmon’s eight catches, 186 yards and three touchdowns). But Gardner cutting his hair wasn’t one of them.

And to prove a point, he almost did it again this year. Almost.

“I wanted to prove that it was an aberration last year and it wasn’t actually my fault,” Gardner said. “But they wouldn’t let me do it. I think an uprising would have started in the locker room. So I’m rocking it for this game.”

Superstitions die hard this time of year.

Stanford’s lone representative from the Badger State will square off against Wisconsin when the Cardinal and Badgers meet on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl presented by Vizio. Coming out of Homestead High School in Mequon, Wisc., about 90 miles East of Madison on the western shore of Lake Michigan, Gardner received only tepid attention as a high school player. He had some offers from smaller schools, but none from Wisconsin; other than a “preferred” walk-on invitation.

“I didn’t necessarily feel disrespected,” he said. “I just wasn’t interested in being a walk-on. Even though I did get an offer from Stanford, it was late and I was the lowest-rated recruit in my class coming in. You definitely come in looking to prove yourself. But after a year or two, once you are integrated into the team and you are so immersed in the team goals, the motivating factor has been to get to this game … I think it might have motivated me early on, but I don’t think about it much anymore.”

The two-time second-team All-Pac-12 performer is tied for second on the team in tackles for a loss (14.5) and sacks (7.5), and has been a catalyst for one of the top defenses in the country.

“I remember when he came in as a freshman, he said he was going to be a starter by the time he left,” said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov. “He’s a quiet guy, but he likes to have fun. He’s definitely the leader of our defensive line.”

And as the hair grew, so did his defensive production.

“It’s his blessing and his curse,” said linebacker Trent Murphy. “I think the mullet itself speaks a ton about Ben's personality. He's a tough, kind of nitty-gritty guy. … That's kind of how he plays on the field. He's just a tough guy.”

He’s come up big in key games this season for the Pac-12 champion Cardinal (11-2), tallying 3.5 tackles for a loss against USC and sacks against Oregon State and UCLA. He’ll look to add to his tally against the team he grew up watching.

He thinks it’s funny that his hair garners so much attention. But it doesn’t define him. And yes, he’s probably going to cut it again.

After the game.

“I think I'm probably a classic, classic guy that you find from Wisconsin,” Gardner said. “Just an average Midwest guy trying to make it out in California.”
Taking a look back at some of the best and worst moments from the Pac-12's bowl season.

Best overall performance (team): We're a field goal away from flipping a coin between Stanford and Oregon. But the Ducks won, and to the victor go the spoils. Say what you want about Wisconsin being overrated; Oregon beat a very good team with one of the most productive college running backs in history, and the Ducks did it on a major stage.

Best offensive performance (individual): Keith Price outdueled Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, passing for 438 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for three more scores. And the Huskies lost! Someone on the Washington defense better be carrying his books around campus until the start of next season.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireWashington's Keith Price passed for 438 yards and four touchdowns and also ran for another three touchdowns in a losing effort against Baylor.
Best offensive performance (team): As good as Washington's offensive show was against Baylor, Oregon did it against a tougher opponent and under a brighter spotlight. LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas both went for more than 100 yards, Lavasier Tuinei turned in season highs in catches (eight) and yards (158) to go with two touchdowns and the offensive line had its way with Wisconsin.

Best defensive performance (individual): In the conference's five losses, teams gave up an average of 41 points. Still, Cal first-team all-conference linebacker Mychal Kendricks did all he could to limit Texas to 21, notching nine solo tackles (10 total) and 1.5 tackles for a loss.

Best defensive performance (team): Pass.

Best offensive performance in a losing effort: Andrew Luck's one interception was the lone stain on an otherwise fantastic performance, in which he completed 27 of 31 passes for 347 yards and two touchdowns. He was 15-of-15 on all of Stanford's scoring drives and 4-for-4 on the final drive that set up the almost-game-winning field goal.

Worst offensive performance: Both Cal and UCLA faced fairly tough defenses in Texas and Illinois, respectively, and their 24 points combined reflected that. (For the record, Washington had 35 by halftime and Oregon had 28 at the half.) But the nod goes to Cal for 7 rushing yards on 36 attempts. That's 0.2 yards per carry. ASU was actually worse with minus-11 rushing yards, but at least it put up 24 points (well, 17 if you take away Rashad Ross' 98-yard kick return).

Worst defensive performance: As a conference, Pac-12 teams gave up an average of 455 yards in their bowl games. Washington was the worst offender with 777 yards yielded.

Best bang for buck: Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas. Two carries, two touchdowns, 155 yards and a 77.5 yards-per-carry average.

Best supporting cast: While Price was fantastic, lest we forget that Chris Polk ran for 147 yards, Jermaine Kearse caught five balls for 198 yards and a score and Devin Aguilar added two receiving touchdowns.

Best holiday spirit: Cal certainly got into the season, giving the ball away five times to Texas.

Best "Oh jeez" moment: Stanford running back Jeremy Stewart taking out teammate Ty Montgomery after he tried to run a kickoff out of the end zone. Stewart, a fifth-year senior, stopped the true freshman right at the line and dropped him, much to the chagrin of 69,927 at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Worst "Oh jeez" moment: Watching Dennis Erickson try to call a timeout when ASU had fourth-and-goal at the Boise 1-yard line. Then watching his face as Jamar Taylor picked off Brock Osweiler and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown.
Bret BielemaHarry How/Getty ImagesBret Bielema's Badgers ran out of timeouts and could not stop the clock for one last play.
PASADENA, Calif. -- After a 45-38 loss to Oregon, Wisconsin was left to wonder what might have been; not just in the Rose Bowl but in its season as a whole.

The Badgers could have played for the national title if not for a loss on a Hail Mary pass at Michigan State and another long passing touchdown in the final seconds at Ohio State. The team rebounded to make it to Pasadena, only to lose in another heartbreaking manner.

The weirdness of the finishes had at least one player wondering if there was some sort of voodoo going on.

"Something must have happened with this team before the season," running back Montee Ball said. "It's just terrible luck. If you take a minute off our season, we'd probably be undefeated."

This time, Wisconsin got the ball back with 16 seconds left at its own 13, needing a touchdown. Russell Wilson completed a 29-yard pass to Jared Abbrederis and a 33-yarder to Nick Toon to put the ball at the Oregon 25 with two seconds left. One problem: the Badgers were out of timeouts. The offense hustled to the line, and Wilson snapped and spiked the ball as soon as the officials whistled it ready for play. But the game clock ran down to zero, and after an official review, the game was ruled over.

Wilson threw up his hands in confusion and outrage when there was not a second put back on the clock.

"I didn't think there was any way that two full seconds ran off the clock there," he said. "They made the call and it is what it is. We could have won the game in a lot of areas, too, but it would have been nice to have a chance there. Obviously with one second left, I think we could have capitalized."

Head coach Bret Bielema said there was no thought to try and run a play instead of going for the spike. Wisconsin put itself in a tough position by calling two timeouts early in the third quarter, something Bielema could get criticized for.

The first timeout was called on first down from the Oregon 14 in the first few minutes of the second half. Bielema ran down the sidelines and onto the field screaming for the timeout there. Bielema said that was a busted formation where a wide receiver lined up on the wrong side. The Badgers ended up settling for a field goal on that drive.

The second timeout came with 10:45 left after Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas hesitated on whether to bring a kickoff return out of the end zone before kneeling down very close to the line. Replays showed that Thomas' foot was on the goal line, though the ball never completely crossed the plane. A replay reversal could have pinned the Ducks inside their own 1 or even ruled the play a safety.

"I was trying to get a read from my sideline official if we could review forward momentum," Bielema said. "He didn't understand the question where I was at, and that's why they charged me a timeout.

"They knew that what I was trying to get answered was answered the proper way, so they came back and gave me another timeout instead of using the challenge."

Ironically, Bielema was questioned for calling timeouts at the end of the Michigan State loss, which ended up giving the Spartans enough time to pull off the Hail Mary. Who knows if having another timeout would have changed things against Oregon, but the Badgers had their guts ripped out again.

"My stomach kind of fell," linebacker Chris Borland said. "We've been through that before. You hate to see a game determined by a review."

A review of Wisconsin's 2011 season will find several weird finishes. Could it have ended any other way in the Rose Bowl?

Video: Oregon's Mark Asper

January, 3, 2012

Oregon offensive lineman Mark Asper talks about a crazy week and finally winning the big one.

Oregon ends 95 years of frustration

January, 3, 2012
Lavasier Tuinei, Darron ThomasGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireOffensive MVP Lavsier Tuinei, left, QB Darron Thomas and the Ducks are Rose Bowl champions.

PASADENA, Calif. -- It takes a lot for a football program to tear up 95 years of frustration and cast it into the trash. It takes spectacular plays, smart plays, clutch plays, unexpected plays and opportunistic plays. It takes stars, supporting players and players you don't see coming.

It's easy to roll one's eyes when players and coaches talk about a "total team effort," but Oregon's 45-38 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin inspired no such eye-rolling, in large part because averted eyes might have missed a big moment.

Take Lavasier Tuinei. The Ducks senior receiver didn't have a 100-yard receiving game all season. Eight times, he caught three or fewer passes. But his season-high eight receptions for 158 yards and two touchdowns earned him Offensive MVP honors.

Who had Tuinei in their Offensive MVP pool?

"For a senior, sometimes you get those moments, and he had a signature moment," Ducks coach Chip Kelly said.

Said Tuinei: "For the last week I've been here, I've been having dreams of making plays for this team and helping us win. What do you know: It came true."

Then take linebacker Kiko Alonso. Repeated instances of off-field trouble nearly cost him his career. He was suspended for the opener against LSU. But he earned Defensive MVP honors with 1.5 sacks, five tackles and a critical interception late in the third quarter.

Who had Alonso in their Defensive MVP pool?

"It is special how far Kiko has come," Kelly said.

Oh, the usual suspects showed up, too. Running back LaMichael James rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown, which propelled him to No. 2 all-time on the Pac-12's career rushing list -- 13th in NCAA history -- with 5,082 yards. QB Darron Thomas threw three TD passes to give him 33 for the season, an Oregon record. Super-fast freshman De'Anthony Thomas had just two carries, but they became touchdown runs of 91 and 64 yards, thereby averaging 77.5 yards per tote.

And let's not forget an offensive line that carved up the Wisconsin defensive front for 345 yards rushing -- 8.6 yards per carry.

But wait: We have more. Safety John Boyett tied a Rose Bowl record with 17 tackles, including 12 solo. Punter Jackson Rice averaged 46 yards on three punts. Freshman cornerback Terrance Mitchell forced a critical fumble with four minutes left that was recovered by linebacker Michael Clay, who had 13 tackles, including two for a loss.

Getting the idea?

"When they had to make a play, they made it," Kelly said. "So many guys contributed to it, and it's truly a total-team win. We're just proud we can say we are Rose Bowl champions."

Rose Bowl champions: Oregon fans know that is not merely a statement of the glorious moment either. It's a statement that ripples through a program whose history isn't terribly impressive until Kenny Wheaton went the other way against Washington during an unlikely Rose Bowl run in 1994.

Yet, as the Ducks started to pile up winning seasons over the past two decades or so, built their program into respectability and, eventually, eclipsed the hated Huskies, there was always that potent tweak: "Yeah, yeah. How many Rose Bowls have you won?" The most effective bit of trash talk that could diminish the Oregon program -- and Kelly's superb tenure -- died in this thriller of a game. A third consecutive conference title didn't advance the program in a meaningful way without this as a confetti-covered capper.

Oregon can't win the big one? Oregon can't beat a top-10 nonconference foe? Oregon's offense gets solved by a highly-rated defense if it gets extra time to prepare?

"It feels good to not have to answer that question any more," said offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, whose offense gained 621 yards against a defense that was yielding just 293 per game.

All those tweaks and all the sometimes not-unreasonable criticism is wiped away because so many players showed up and did their jobs well.

"I think this kind of validates what we stand for," Kelly said. "This team is fearless. They're resilient. And they've got faith. ... They really stick together and believe in the guy to the right of them and to the left of them because they see what they do every day in practice."

And the run isn't over. The Ducks, even if James enters the NFL draft, as expected, will welcome back 32 of the 44 players on their two-deep depth chart, including both Thomases, Alonso, Clay, Mitchell and Boyett. They very likely will begin the 2012 season ranked in -- or at least very near -- the nation's top 5.

So, yeah, this team might be in Miami next January instead of returning to the Rose Bowl, though USC might have something to say about that.

But the present moment, the one that ripples backwards through 95 years in which scattered glory and success fell just short of ultimate satisfaction, is what Oregon is about right now. It should be savored. It should last until next preseason.

And Ducks fans surely should gloat that the rest of the Pac-12 just lost its best bit of trash talking.

De'Anthony ThomasKelvin Kuo/US PresswireDe'Anthony Thomas ripped off two huge runs against a Wisconsin defense that gave up 621 yards.
PASADENA, Calif. -- The simple storyline coming out of the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio will likely be that Wisconsin simply wasn't fast enough to beat Oregon.

Plenty of evidence would support that conclusion. Never in the 98 years of the Rose Bowl has a team averaged as much as 9.7 yards per play, as the Ducks did in their 45-38 win. Oregon racked up 621 total yards and had scoring plays of 91, 64, 54 and 41 yards as Badgers defenders often hopelessly chased from behind.

Wisconsin players bristled at the notion that they couldn't run with Oregon, and not surprisingly. They've heard the too-slow critique for years and have won enough games to disprove much of it. They preferred to blame Monday's defensive performance on things like "gap accountability," missed assignments and just plain brain cramps.

"I think we lost our mind on some plays," defensive end Louis Nzegwu said.

Fans and media are often guilty of not thinking clearly when trying to explain a team's losses. Wisconsin has now dropped two straight Rose Bowls by the thinnest of margins, and there will be those who try to diagnose why the program "can't win the big one." It's the same stuff Oregon heard until late Monday evening. Never mind that the Ducks lost close games in their last two BCS losses, or that the Badgers might be celebrating a second straight Rose win if just a couple of plays had gone differently.

Yet if there's anything the past two Rose Bowls have taught us -- and especially this one -- it's that Wisconsin needs more difference-makers on defense.

That doesn't necessarily mean more speed, though that wouldn't hurt. Even though De'Anthony Thomas and LaMichael James spent a lot of time gliding down the field alone or with a friendly escort, the Badgers didn't come away thinking they couldn't keep up with the Ducks.

"I thought they were fast, but I thought we matched them pretty well," safety Aaron Henry said. "Whenever we did what we were supposed to do, we got off the field. When we allowed them to run through holes without being touched, they took advantage of it."

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema used the month of preparation to simulate Oregon's accelerated pace as much as possible. The defense faced two scout-team offenses at once during practice and went through extra conditioning work to get ready for the up-tempo.

It turned out that didn't play much of a factor. The Ducks often didn't go at warp speed with their snaps. They just scored really quickly. Two examples were particularly galling for Wisconsin.

The Badgers had pinned the ball with a punt on the Oregon 9-yard-line late in the first quarter, only to have Thomas rip off a Rose Bowl-record 91-yard touchdown. On the first series after halftime when adjustments should have been fine-tuned, the Ducks scored in just 33 seconds on a 64-yard Thomas run.

"With a month to prepare, we shouldn't have had problems like that," linebacker Mike Taylor said. "Their mixing up of formations and things, they do get you off of your keys. But there's really no excuse for it."

Oregon averaged 8.6 yards per rush -- another Rose record -- and quarterback Darron Thomas threw for 268 yards, his third-highest total of the season. Wisconsin only sacked him twice and did not stop much of anything outside of the Ducks' screen game.

"What hurt us was the play-action pass," Nzegwu said. "We respected their run, and when some of our D-ends hit the edge we couldn't tell whether it was a run or pass. We kept on following the running back, and that kind of hurt our pass rush."

What also hurts is a lack of defenders who can blow up plays on their own. Nzegwu returned a fumble Taylor caused by a hit on Thomas for a touchdown, and Henry came up with an interception. But there were too few other impact plays. Oregon has lost under coach Chip Kelly when it has faced teams with a standout defensive line and other disruptive presences, like Nick Fairley of Auburn or Tyrann Mathieu of LSU. The Badgers have many good defensive players -- Taylor and fellow linebacker Chris Borland were All-Big Ten selections -- but not enough stars or blue-chip NFL prospects.

The program has shown it can produce those types of players. Defensive end J.J. Watt won the Lott Trophy last year and just wrapped up a strong rookie regular season for the Houston Texans. Even with Watt last year, though, Wisconsin struggled to contain TCU's skill players in a 21-19 Rose Bowl loss.

Wisconsin is known for offensive studs like quarterback Russell Wilson and Montee Ball and those NFL offensive linemen; Bielema's next challenge is to attract and develop similarly elite talent on the other side of the ball. Wisconsin may have to rely more on its defense next year without Wilson, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and most likely Ball.

It's true that Oregon will make a lot of teams look slow when its offense is clicking. But it's also true that teams don't win many BCS games by giving up 621 yards and 45 points.

"We didn't even challenge them on two or three of their scores, and nobody can win doing that," Bielema said.

The Badgers were just a couple plays short of winning every game they played this season, so a major overhaul is not in order. A few more defensive difference-makers, however, could have changed those outcomes.