Rose Bowl blog debate: Pac-12 vs. Big Ten

December, 26, 2011
12/26/11
9:00
AM ET
Ball/JamesUS Presswire

Montee Ball and LaMichael James will highlight a showdown of high-powered offenses.

After a year's hiatus, the Rose Bowl is back to its traditional self: A Pac-12-Big Ten matchup.

And it looks like a good matchup of good teams with contrasting styles.

Sounds like a good time for a blog debate!

Ted Miller: Well, Brian, we’re back to a traditional Pac-12-Big Ten Granddaddy and it looks like a good one: Midwest power versus West Coast flash. I’m a little surprised that Oregon is favored against Montee Ball, Russell Wilson and that mammoth group of biscuit and gravy eaters you call an offensive line. Give me an idea of what the Ducks are up against with the Badgers' offense. Is it all power football, or is it more sophisticated than that?

Brian Bennett: You'd better believe the Badgers have the baddest bunch of big uglies in college football, with an offensive line that outweighs many NFL units. Add in a couple of good tight ends, a senior fullback and Wisconsin's dedication to the ground game and you can see why the program has been one of the best running teams in the country for several years now. But it's not just all brute. The thing that makes these linemen stand out is that they are nimble and can really move, and I think many defenses are shocked by that combination of strength and athleticism early in games. Wilson has also given this team an entirely new dimension with his ability to make plays on the move and his outstanding accuracy. Opponents have no choice but to respect the run when playing Wisconsin, and that makes this offense the most dangerous play-action team in America. You'll see receivers getting huge cushions in the passing game, and Ball can break tackles even when the box is loaded.

That's why the Badgers average 44.6 points per game, just a tick below Oregon's 46.2 average. My question for you is, can the Ducks' defense handle this kind of offensive power, especially in a 3-4 scheme?

[+] EnlargeBall
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMontee Ball's 1,759 yards and 32 rushing touchdowns on the season have helped the Badgers score an average of 44.6 points per game.
Ted Miller: Oooooo. I’m telling Chip Kelly that you said the Ducks run a 3-4! He hates that. No idea why. Coordinator Nick Aliotti will tell you that the Ducks throw a lot of stunts and looks -- 3-4, 4-3, 2-5, etc -- and crazy stuff at you. They are fast, underrated and bigger than many think. Their top four defensive tackles, who are in a regular rotation, weigh 321, 300, 283 and 286 pounds.

Oregon has faced big, powerful teams before. Stanford and USC the past two years, in conference, and Auburn and LSU out of conference. Forgotten in the talk about how Auburn and LSU slowed down the Ducks' offense is how the Ducks' defense slowed down both sets of Tigers. Oregon outgained LSU 372-273 but was done in by four horrible turnovers. The Ducks held Auburn and Cam Newton to 22 points, its second-lowest total of the season.

Sure, Oregon’s defense ranks 59th in the nation in total yards while Wisconsin ranks eighth. But they yield similar numbers on yards per play: Oregon 4.93, Wisconsin 4.85. And the Ducks are slightly better on third down. Oregon’s defense’s biggest problem is its offense, which scores a lot of points despite ranking LAST in the nation in time of possession. The Badgers' defense, with an offense that ranks 22nd in time of possession, only faced 786 plays this year. Oregon faced 1,005. That skews numbers.

Wait. Did I get all stats-y there? Sorry. My answer to the size question is what Oregon will say leading up to the Rose Bowl. It’s nothing new for them. They play their game, run their stunts, use their speed and see what happens. Stanford, which has two first-round NFL draft choices on its O-line, would be the most natural comparison with the Badgers. And for two years in a row, no team has played good enough defense to beat the Cardinal and Andrew Luck other than Oregon.

While Badgers fans expect Whisky to run over the Ducks with size -- Big Ten thinking! -- Ducks fans believe they can exploit the Badgers' defense with speed and misdirection -- Pac-12 thinking! What about some Brian Bennett thinking: Do the Badgers have the speed on defense to keep up with the Ducks? Is Bret Bielema going to use past blueprints to thwart Kelly?

Brian Bennett: Yeah, we get it: The Big Ten is slow, blah blah blah. You're not the first and won't be the last to question Wisconsin's speed on defense. Several teams exploited the Badgers' lack of explosiveness on the edge this season, especially Michigan State in their two epic meetings. Wisconsin players have readily admitted to me that they wouldn't win many foot races against the swifter Ducks.

So, yes, that could be a mismatch, just as it was last season against TCU. But luckily the Rose Bowl is not a series of 40-yard dashes. Bielema's defense has been sneakily pretty darn good all year, ranking sixth nationally in allowing just 17 points per game. Linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor are sound tacklers, the front four holds its own and the secondary -- despite getting burned for two long, last-minute winning touchdowns this season -- doesn't normally give up a lot. Two things make this an underrated defense: 1. First-year coordinator Chris Ash and his staff have shown a great ability to make adjustments during the game; 2. Wisconsin's offense usually keeps the ball so long that the defense can stay fresh.

Of course, that will be a major area to watch against Oregon. The Badgers have been doing extra conditioning to get ready for the Ducks' speed on offense. But teams have had more success against that quick-strike attack when they've had a long time to prepare for it (see: LSU, Auburn, Ohio State, etc). How will the long layoff affect Oregon's timing, and will this fancy Pac-12 offense fare any better against a Big Ten defense than it did the last time the Ducks sank in the Rose Bowl?

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Kyle Terada/US PresswireWill Chip Kelly's fast Ducks be able to outrun Bret Bielema's defenders?
Ted Miller: First of all, you mention the Wisconsin-Michigan State games. I would, speaking from the West Coast, like to thank both teams for putting together two brilliant, thrilling games.

Back to Oregon's offense. I talked to Kelly this week about teams doing well with more time to prepare for his offense. He reasonably pointed out that, in every instance -- and I'd include the 2009 opener at Boise State -- the opponent was really, really good. So that needs to be noted first. Everyone thought Oregon’s and Auburn’s high-powered offenses would dominate last year’s national title game, but the final was 22-19. I suspect that we won't get 90 combined points in the Rose Bowl and neither team hits its season average or even eclipses 40.

It is difficult to deal with Oregon's tempo. A number of Pac-12 teams resorted to faking injuries in 2010, when it was really clicking. If the Ducks get into a rhythm, they can seem unstoppable, even against good defenses. But a defense that gets extra time enjoys two things: 1. It can get a much better feel for that tempo, and plan accordingly; 2. It can train its eyes to not fall for misdirection or false keys. A defense that can maintain gap integrity against the Ducks -- and can get penetration -- can disrupt the Oregon offense.

But it's also worth noting that the only defense that truly stopped Oregon was Boise State. Ducks mistakes -- penalties, turnovers -- killed them against Ohio State, Auburn and LSU. And against all three of those teams, there were impressive, vintage Oregon drives. Only West Virginia was more productive against LSU's defense this season, and the Mountaineers were playing at home. The Ducks 19-play, 79-yard touchdown drive against LSU, which required an un-Oregon-like 7:41, was a thing of beauty.

The big question is whether the Badgers’ defense is as good as those previous defenses. LSU and Auburn had the team speed to keep up and tackled extremely well. Ohio State had an NFL-ready defensive line that won battles up front. What about Wisky?

And that brings us to game keys. We'll be making our final predictions closer to the Jan. 2 kickoff. But give me two keys for the Badgers in this game, and I'll then do the same for the Ducks.

Brian Bennett: You make a good point about the scoring. Last season, TCU and Wisconsin came into the Rose Bowl each averaging more than 43 points per game. Final score: 21-19.

The biggest key in this game for Wisconsin is to dominate in its rushing attack. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst got away from the ground game last season against TCU, and it cost the Badgers the win. If that offensive line can open up nice holes for Ball, especially on first down, that really brings the play-action pass into effect. And maybe more importantly, it helps Wisconsin chew up a lot of clock while the Ducks' offense grows restless on the sidelines.

The second key, I think, is just for the Badgers' defense to weather the storm. Oregon is going to be Oregon, but Wisconsin has to tackle well and not give up many big plays. And when the Ducks do rip off a big gainer, the defense has to gather itself and not let things spiral out of control. The Badgers don't have to shut down Oregon to win this game; they just need to get some stops and force a couple of field goals instead of touchdowns.

(And if you want a bonus third key, don't let any punts get blocked. Breakdowns in the punting game swung momentum in both Wisconsin's losses this year).

How about your keys for the Quack Attack?

Ted Miller: The first key is turnovers. In just about every game the Ducks have lost under Chip Kelly, they gave the ball away in uncharacteristic ways and at critical times. Every team wants to win the turnover battle, but with Oregon it's more of a case of not losing it.

Second, offensive adjustments. Oregon typically is very good at figuring what an opponent is trying to do to stop it on offense, but sometimes that takes the entire first half. Wisconsin is not the sort of team, however, you want to play catch-up against in the second half, when the Badgers would want to pound you and run the clock down.

Finally, my bonus key is tempo: As in whose tempo prevails? Both teams wear down an opposing defense but do it in very different ways. Oregon wants to play fast. Wisconsin wants to pound. Who's modus operandi proves superior, at least after sunset in the San Gabriel Mountains?

Ted Miller | email

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