With their all-time winningest head coach roaming the sidelines once more, the Wisconsin Badgers are back in Pasadena to take on the eighth-ranked Stanford Cardinal in the 99th edition of the Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin is playing in the Rose Bowl for the third straight year, joining Stanford and Oregon as the only teams in the nation to play in BCS bowl games each of the last three years. However, the circumstances surrounding this year's trip present quite a different challenge for the Badgers. That's because athletic director Barry Alvarez, who happens to be a member of the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, will coach the game after former skipper Bret Bielema shook the college football landscape in early-December when he decided to leave Wisconsin for the coaching vacancy at Arkansas.
On Dec. 20, the search for the school's next coach officially came to an end when Gary Anderson was hired from Utah State, which just completed an 11-2 campaign and came within a missed field goal of beating the Badgers earlier this season. Anderson has observed practices from off to the side with the stated intention of being a fly on the wall for the bowl game.
"These kids need to go win the Rose Bowl," Andersen said. "The last thing they need from me is to hang around them."
While a sudden coaching change is certainly not ideal heading into a BCS bowl game, the Badgers figure to be in good hands with Alvarez, who won the "Granddaddy of Them All" three times during his 16-year tenure as Wisconsin's head coach from 1990-2005. A fourth win would tie Ohio State's Woody Hayes for most Rose Bowl victories by a Big Ten coach.
Meanwhile, Stanford is going bowling for the fourth straight year for the first time in school history and will be looking to atone for last season's overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. The Cardinal racked up 11 wins for the third straight year, riding an eight-game Pac-12 winning streak to capture their first conference title since 1999 with a win over UCLA in the league title game. The team, which is led by second-year coach and two-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year David Shaw, has not tasted defeat since an overtime loss at top-ranked Notre Dame back on Oct. 13. Tri-captain Chase Thomas recalled a players-only meeting after that loss, the team's second setback in a span of three weeks.
"(Fellow captains Sam Schwartzstein, Stepfan Taylor) and I got the guys together in the locker room before practice and told them they have to make a decision right now: 'How do you want the rest of the season to play out?'" Thomas said. "We controlled our destiny and knew if we won out, we'd be going to the Rose Bowl."
Wisconsin leads the head-to-head series, 4-0-1. Stanford's last appearance in the Rose Bowl resulted in a 17-9 loss to Wisconsin in 2000.
If Wisconsin's offense can come anywhere close to replicating its performance in the Big Ten title game, it will spell bad news for the Cardinal. The Badgers ran for an astounding 539 yards and eight touchdowns against Nebraska, averaging a first down per carry as a team (10.8 ypc). Melvin Gordon (216 yards, TD) and Montee Ball (202 yds, 3 TD) became the first Badgers duo ever to top 200 yards in a single game, while James White rushed for 109 yards and four TDs. Ball won this season's Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top running back. He has run for 1,730 yards and 21 touchdowns (133.1 ypg), and in the process passed Travis Prentice to become the all-time touchdowns leader in FBS history, with 82. White is averaging 6.7 ypc and has rushed for 802 yards and 12 scores on the season for the Badgers, who boast the nation's 12th- ranked rushing offense.
Defensively, Wisconsin ranks 13th in the country in total defense (320.9 ypg) and is tied for 19th in scoring defense (19.1 ppg). The 31 points allowed in the Big Ten Championship marked the only time all season the Badgers let up more than 30 points in a game, although Nebraska only crossed that threshold thanks to a TD in the final minute with the outcome long since decided. Senior All-Big Ten linebacker Mike Taylor headlines the defensive unit, as he ranks fourth in the league in tackles (120) and fifth in tackles for loss (15.0). Fellow linebacker Chris Borland joined Taylor on the All-Big Ten First Team, racking up 95 tackles (10.0 TFL) to go along with three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Stanford's offense is not a particularly high-octane unit, ranking seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring (28.5 ppg) and eighth in total offense (376.8 ypg). Still, the Cardinal were certainly efficient enough to pile up 11 wins on the year. The unsung strength lies with an offensive line that allowed a conference-low 17 sacks while protecting a pair of first-year starting quarterbacks in Josh Nunes and Kevin Hogan. That unit also paved the way for senior Stepfan Taylor to rush for the second-most yards in school history (1,442). The group is led by consensus All-American David Yankey, who has played four of the five offensive line positions this year, plus tight end.
The Cardinal also boast a potent weapon down the seam in senior tight end Zach Ertz, who became the first tight end to earn unanimous All-American honors since Heath Miller in 2004. Ertz paced all FBS tight ends with 66 receptions and 837 receiving yards, both school records for his position. Ertz led the team in receiving seven times this season, including a career-high 11 catches along with the game-tying TD at top-ranked Oregon to send the game to overtime. He also caught game-winning touchdowns against both No. 2 USC and No. 13 Oregon State.
Stanford ranks third in the nation against the run, allowing only 87.7 ypg on the ground, although the unit will no doubt be tested by Ball and the Badgers. Stanford also tops the nation in sacks (56) and in tackles for loss (120). Outside linebacker Trent Murphy and free safety Ed Reynolds headline the Cardinal defense. Murphy's 18.0 tackles for loss are the most by a Stanford player since 2000, and his 10.0 sacks are the most since 2004. Reynolds has collected a team-high six interceptions this season, which ranks ninth nationally and represent the most by a Stanford player since 1973. Reynolds returned a school-record three picks for touchdowns on the year, and with 301 interception return yards, he stands one yard short of the NCAA single-season record. With Reynolds setting the tone, Stanford's defense has recorded at least one takeaway in 23 straight games, tying the third-longest streak in the FBS.