Pac-12: 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.

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 -- When he first got into coaching, Jim Harbaugh used to talk about conversations he had with his former Michigan coach, Bo Schembechler, regarding how he wanted to run an offense. How would he use the tight end, Schembechler would ask. Would he use double tights? Would the fullback and tight end work in conjunction? The answers were: A lot, yes and yes. It was vintage Big Ten thinking through and through.

True, the 2012 edition of Stanford that will take the field Tuesday against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio might have a healthy dusting of a classic Big Ten team; run the football, stop the run. In the offense-happy Pac-12, that breaks the mold a bit. But just because you want to run the ball and stop the run first and foremost doesn’t mean you fall into into any stereotypical classification.

“That’s just football,” Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. “I don’t know if that’s a traditional Big Ten team or not. To me, that’s just how you play football.”

Spoken like a veteran Big Ten coach.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireStanford coach David Shaw said the Cougars were one of the most physical team the Cardinal faced last year and he expects more of the same when they meet on Saturday.
The Cardinal play a brand of ball that does seem better suited for the Schembechler days than the modern spread, chuck-it-around game. But it works for them -- as evidenced by their third straight appearance in a BCS bowl game and 2012 Pac-12 championship. And that’s all that matters.

“Growing up and watching a lot of Big Ten football, it’s run the football, defend the run and do everything else after that,” Stanford defensive end and Wisconsin native Ben Gardner said. “That’s basically what we do. It’s what we’ve done for the last few years. It’s a little different now without Andrew Luck playing quarterback. But we still feel like we’ve got the playmakers on offense to have a passing game and add that dimension. The basis of what we do is run the football and stop the run and that’s always what we do here.

“That’s what makes this a great matchup because that’s what Wisconsin does, too. And that’s been the style of football in the Big Ten. Coming from the Midwest I love it. It’s the kind of game I want to play and it’s the kind of game our defense wants to play. We couldn’t be more excited about it.”

When Harbaugh and current Stanford head coach David Shaw left the University of San Diego for The Farm, they started mapping out what they wanted the team to look like. Not just in 2007, but in 2012, ’13 and beyond.

“He asked me about [former coach] Denny Green,” Shaw recalled. “I said, well my dad was defensive coordinator. We played great defense. We had great athletes on offense that we moved to defense and we had Tommy Vardell on the offensive side and Ed McCaffrey. So at the time we had the biggest offensive line in college football in the early ‘90s and that was Jim’s mentality. I told him it has worked at Stanford before.

“We talked about how it came with recruiting and it seemed like a perfect fit. When everybody else was running sideways in the conference, we started running north and south with really big guys and physical guys like Toby Gerhart, Jimmy Dray blocking on the right side. There were just so many things that fit perfectly and we’ve been able to continue to recruit to what we want to do.”

But there are limitations to just how “Big Ten” Stanford can really be. Because it doesn’t play in the Big Ten. It plays in the Pac-12, where stud wide receivers are plentiful, quarterbacks are slingers and half the teams have a 1,000-yard rusher. So simply stopping the run isn’t good enough.

“I think it's a fair comparison [to the Big Ten] when you talk about the style of ball,” Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said. “Defensively we're predicated on stopping the run. Most of the Big Ten is predicated on stopping the run. But I think the comparison probably stops there. We still generally have to defend the pass because everybody in our conference, when you talk about SC or UCLA or talk about Arizona, when you talk about Washington State and what [Mike] Leach is doing up there in Washington, there is not a team in the Pac-12 that doesn't have a receiver that can go get them in the distance.

“…It is blue collar, and that's what we want to be," Mason continued. "We try to recruit to who we are. We can't be like the rest of the other teams in the Pac-12. Don't want to be. Coach Shaw made that clear when he took over. We're going to be us and continue to do what we do and I think that served us well. So we're going to stay in our mold, and hopefully that continues to be a great brand of football.”
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."

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.”

Pac-12 bowl primer: Rose Bowl

December, 14, 2012
This week we'll be taking a snapshot look at all of the bowl games including Pac-12 teams.


Wisconsin (8-5, 4-4 Big Ten) vs. No. 6 Stanford (11-2, 8-1)

Where: Pasadena, Calif. The Rose Bowl

When: Tue. Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT


About Stanford: The Pac-12 champs are riding a seven-game winning streak. It's been a whacky year, for sure, on The Farm (and on the road for that matter, see: Dame, Notre). The Cardinal scored marquee wins over No. 2 USC, No. 11 Oregon State and No. 16 (and 17) UCLA in consecutive weeks. But the crown jewel came when they went to Eugene and knocked off the No. 2 Ducks. The defense has been outstanding against the run and the secondary has done a solid job of avoiding big plays and creating turnovers. Stepfan Taylor is one of the most complete running backs in the country and a late-season swaparoo to Kevin Hogan at quarterback has helped stabilize the offense.

About Wisconsin: Don't let the five losses fool you -- the Badgers were competitive in all five defeats. Four of the five came by a field goal (two of them in overtime) and a third overtime game was lost by a touchdown to Ohio State. So while the Cardinal have been very good this year at winning the close ones, the Badgers haven't been as fortunate. However, pasting No. 12 Nebraska 70-31 in the conference championship and advancing to a third straight Rose Bowl makes up for a lot of close losses.

Key players, Stanford: It starts with Taylor, Stanford's all-time leading rusher, but it doesn't end with him. As Hogan matures into the role of starter, his understanding of the offense has expanded. And he has a great mismatch target in All-American tight end Zach Ertz. Defensively, the sum of Stanford's front seven is as good as there is in the nation. But first-team, all-conference safety Ed Reynolds has really been a difference-maker this season with six interceptions -- half of which have been returned for touchdowns.

Key players, Wisconsin: Like Stanford, it starts with the run for Wisconsin. And the Badgers also have one of the best backs in the country in Montee Ball -- this year's Doak Walker Award winner. He's one of just three running backs in the country to rush for at least 1,700 yards and he's reached the end zone 21 times on the ground. The linebacking duo of Mike Taylor and Chris Borland have combined for more than 200 tackles, 25 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks.

Did you know: Wisconsin is making its fifth Rose Bowl appearance in the BCS era, matching USC for most appearances since 1998 ... Coach-turned-athletic director-turned-coach Barry Alvarez has an 8-3 record in bowl games ... Alvarez is just the second person to ever coach in the Rose Bowl after being inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame (Rick Neuheisel is the other) ... This is the first time in Stanford history the program is going to four straight bowl games ... Wisconsin, Stanford and Oregon are the only teams in the country that have gone to BCS bowls the past three seasons ... Stanford is 5-6-1 all time in Rose Bowls, including a 17-9 loss to Wisconsin in its previous appearance.
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.

Some Oregon Rose Bowl notes

January, 4, 2012
At LAX yesterday, I typed up some of the official notes from the Rose Bowl, but my computer -- or more accurately my Internet connection -- ate them. Here they are a day late but hopefully not a dollar short.
  • Oregon’s win over Wisconsin gave Pac-12 schools 148 bowl victories. That’s fourth all-time, behind the SEC (206), ACC (155) and Big Ten (150).
  • Oregon averaged 11.9 yards on first down against Wisconsin, buoyed by six plays of 21 yards or longer (35, 54, 29, 21, 64, 35).
  • Oregon's 621 yards on 64 plays blew away the Rose Bowl record for yards per play. The Ducks averaged 9.70, breaking the old mark by almost two full yards (7.89, Wisconsin vs. UCLA, 1999).
  • Wisconsin came in with 12 turnover-free games in its last 26, and committed two for just the third time in that span (UW has not had three in this run).
  • Oregon entered the game leading the nation in yards per rush at 6.53. The Ducks averaged 8.63 in the Rose Bowl, thus finishing the year with a 6.66 average (Wisconsin came in allowing just 3.92 per attempt).
  • The teams combined to set a Rose Bowl game record for the most points in a game with 83.
  • The teams combined for 1,129 total yards (UO 621, UW 508), 1 yard shy of the RBG record for most combined yards, as in the 2006 game, USC (574) and Texas (556) combined for 1,130. Oregon’s 621 yards were the second most to the 633 USC amassed against Illinois in the 2008 game.
  • In the comparison of running backs, Wisconsin's Montee Ball outgained Oregon's LaMichael James 164 yards to 159, with both producing top-five Rose Bowl performances. But James had just one run for zero or negative yardage. Ball had four for zero yards and three for negative yards. James averaged 6.4 yards per carry and Ball averaged 5.1.
  • Oregon is now 17-32 versus Big Ten schools; Wisconsin is now 23-31-2 versus Pac-12 schools.
  • The Ducks’ six TD drives totaled 433 yards but took only 7:32 (or 433 yards in 452 seconds); their one field goal march took 5:54.
  • The game time temperature was 82 degrees, the sixth warmest at kickoff in Rose Bowl history. So for those of you there going, "Sorta hot, eh?" You were correct.

Video: Oregon's Mark Asper

January, 3, 2012

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

Video: Oregon's David Paulson

January, 3, 2012

Oregon tight end David Paulson talks about winning the Rose Bowl.

Video: Oregon's Michael Clay

January, 2, 2012

Oregon linebacker Michael Clay talks about the Ducks' defense finding its rhythm in the second half.