Wisconsin (11-2) vs. Oregon (11-2)
Monday, January 2nd, 5:10 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Frank Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: Expected to be one of the more competitive and entertaining matchups of the postseason, the Wisconsin Badgers battle the Oregon Ducks in the 98th Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin won 10 of its 12 games during the regular season, earning a share of the Big Ten Conference's Legends Division (with Penn State), but due to the tie-breaker, earned the right to face Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten title tilt. It was a rematch of thrilling game played between the two just six weeks earlier (37-31 MSU win), and this time it was the Badgers who prevailed in a 42-39 final. As a result, UW won its second straight conference crown and its 13th overall, thus earning a trip to its second straight Rose Bowl, and eighth overall.
Under the direction of head coach Bret Bielema, the Badgers have won at least 10 games for the third straight season -- the first time that has happened in school history -- and they are one of only six teams in the country to accomplish the feat over the past three years. The Badgers come into this contest riding a five-game win streak.
Wisconsin is appearing in its 10th straight bowl game, and its 23rd all-time. The Badgers are an even 11-11 in their previous forays into the postseason.
Oregon is appearing in its third straight BCS bowl game, the only team in the country to earn that distinction, and they punched their ticket to the Rose Bowl by winning the inaugural Pac-12 Conference Championship Game against UCLA, 49-31. The Ducks, under the tutelage of head coach Chip Kelly, are 11-2 on the season, with their two losses coming in the opener against top-ranked LSU (40-27), and versus conference rival USC (38-35) 11 weeks later.
Oregon is playing in its sixth Rose Bowl, and is just 1-4 previously in "The Granddaddy of Them All". The Ducks are 0-3 in Rose Bowl bouts against a Big Ten opponent, losing to Penn State once and Ohio State twice. Bowl eligible for the seventh straight year, Oregon is 9-15 all-time in bowls, and the Ducks are one of only 10 teams nationally to play in a bowl game in 18 of the last 22 seasons.
Wisconsin had won the first three meetings in the series with Oregon, but the Ducks finally put one in the win column in the last encounter, taking a 31-28 decision at home back in 2001.
Not typically known for having standout quarterbacks, Wisconsin came into this season hoping to shed that distinction as former NC State standout Russell Wilson was given the reins to the offense. Wilson did not disappoint, as he completed 72.5 percent of his passes for 2,879 yards, 31 TDs and only three INTs in what was a record-setting year. More than just a passer, Wilson also ran for 320 yards and five scores, although that aspect of the game was certainly covered by Heisman finalist Montee Ball, and to a lesser extent, backup James White (133 carries, 686 yards, six TDs). Ball has enjoyed a record-setting campaign of his own, churning out 1,759 yards and 32 TDs on the ground, while adding 255 yards and six scores through the air. He is one TD shy of matching Barry Sanders single-season NCAA record of 39. From a receiving standpoint, both Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis have certainly enjoyed having Wilson at the helm, as they have combined for 106 catches, 1,636 yards and 16 TDs. Jacob Pedersen has just 29 receptions, but eight of them have been for scores.
With so much offensive firepower, it's no wonder Wisconsin averages 44.6 ppg on 466.9 ypg, but the defense has stepped up as well, yielding a mere 17.0 ppg on typical outputs of 138.0 ypg rushing and 155.0 ypg through the air. The Badgers got productive seasons out of both Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, as they logged 137 and 131 tackles, respectively. Borland was particularly effective in stifling the opposition at the point of attack, registering 18 TFL -- 10 more than his closet teammate (Taylor). Shelton Johnson and Antonio Fenelus both proved to be opportunistic as they posted four INTs apiece.
Coach Bielema knows his team will face a major test in this game, but hopes some added prep time will have his troops ready, "These guys [Oregon] are very hard to play within a week. If you got done with a game on Saturday and you had to get ready for them the following week, I think it would be a very difficult challenge. But the extended prep and the opportunity to kind of slow things down a little bit mentally is going to be great."
Not to be outdone by their counterpart in this matchup, the Ducks have their own star RB in the form of redshirt junior LaMichael James. On the brink of reaching the top-15 all-time in the NCAA in terms of career rushing yards, James has gained 1,646 yards while scoring 17 TDs this season, despite missing two games due to injury, and he needs just 77 yards to reach 5,000 for his career. Kenjon Barner has made the most of his opportunities in the UO backfield as well, rushing for 909 yards and 11 scores. Not just a one- dimensional offense, Oregon has gotten solid quarterback play from Darron Thomas, as he has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 2,493 yards, 30 TDs and only six INTs. Preferring to spread the ball around rather than key on one or two guys, Thomas has completed passes to 15 different guys, with at least 29 balls going to Josh Huff, David Paulson, Lavasier Tuinei and De'Anthony Thomas -- the last two combining for 82 grabs, 1,012 yards and 17 TDs. The Oregon offensive line has allowed just 12 sacks in 13 games.
With the offense firing on all cylinders most of the time (46.2 ppg, 515.2 ypg), the Oregon defense has stood tall against the bulk of its opponents, allowing 23.6 ppg on 137.5 ypg rushing, but more than 243 ypg via the pass. The Ducks have however, logged a whopping 43 sacks, 13.5 of which have been credited to the duo of Josh Kaddu and Dion Jordan. Overall, John Boyett leads the team in tackles with 91, while Michael Clay is close behind with 89. The UO defense has come up with 27 takeaways on the year, including 16 picks, and all this despite being on the field for just 25 minutes per contest.
Kelly was asked after winning the Pac-12 title if he felt any added pressure to win this game based on two straight losses in a BCS bowl to which he responded, "Not based on the two previous losses, but that's our whole mindset going into it. We don't look at it and say, Let's take this one off," He continued, "I think our guys are going to go out there and compete, and not based upon anything that happened in the past. I said this a lot, we're a forward-thinking operation. We have a chance to play one more time. It's exactly a month from today. We're going to play on January 2nd. That's what we'll be prepared for."
If you're a fan of offensive football, it doesn't get much better than this. Whether the defenses are up to the task remains to be seen, but rest assured, neither team is going to leave anything in the locker room. When the dust settles, expect the Ducks to earn the victory if for no other reason than it very well may be James' final college game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Oregon 38, Wisconsin 35
12/30 16:17:40 ET