As good as Wisconsin's two-time All-American tailback was in pushing the offense forward, I would argue that senior Curt Phillips was Wisconsin's most valuable offensive player in the 99th Rose Bowl. I agree that Phillips didn't do a lot of flashy things and doesn't have the same type of arm strength that Joel Stave does, but the fifth-year senior was an efficient 10-for-16 with one touchdown and an efficiency rating of 114.2.
"We took a shot in there with Stave that one time, took a shot to Abby and didn't quite get it," said offensive coordinator Matt Canada. "We were going to use (Stave) as we thought. In the first half, Curt was 7-for-8. Curt was playing very well. He was playing well with his feet, making some runs."
Phillips was certainly lucky at points – a number of deflected passes that should have been intercepted went for completions – but he certainly was unlucky with the lack of success by UW's wide receivers. Stanford's defensive front was, without question, the best unit that the Badgers faced all season, and Phillips was able to negate some of that pressure by utilizing his legs.
"He's a great kid," said Canada. "He's the kind of guy you want to coach. I am proud of him."
Phillips' 64 yards on five carries (12.8 per carry) were huge in keeping the defense honest and his 38-yard run set up the Badgers' second touchdown, which was a perfect throw from Phillips on the run where only his receiver could catch it.
The second half was a struggle, as Wisconsin ran only two plays in Stanford territory after halftime with the final one being the game-clinching interception.
"We had opportunities," said Canada. "We just didn't make a couple plays that we needed to make. There were some plays there we just didn't finish up. We did have some field position … We just came up a little short on that last drive."
This was one of two possessions of weakness on the team that really cost Wisconsin. Playing three quarterbacks during a season is not a recipe for success or championships. UW was the exception to that rule, although they won a championship because of a couple of exceptions.
Danny O'Brien needs to become the playmaker that he was at Maryland if he wants to win the starting job and win over the fan base. Stave needs to continue to grow as a player and refine his skills. Phillips should get a chance for a sixth year of eligibility and should be considered for the starting job considering what he did down the stretch. No matter who starts, the group has to be much better.
Stanford entered the game ranked third in the country against the run, allowing just 87.7 rushing yards per game. Wisconsin ran for 218 yards on 45 carries (4.8 ypc.).
Montee Ball became the first player in Rose Bowl history to score a touchdown in three straight games, and was on fire in the first half with 87 rushing yards and his 83rd career touchdown. But the stout Cardinal run defense limited to Ball only 13 yards in the second half and kept Wisconsin's three-headed monster to 155 yards on 39 carries (3.97 per carry).
"We had the game," said Ball, who became the first player to rush for at least 100 yards in three different Rose Bowls. "We had it. Winning this game would have erased everything this season."
Melvin Gordon had a couple glimmers of hope on the jet sweep that worked so famously against Nebraska. But the Badgers learned that Stanford's defense is a lot better and more discipline than the Huskers, as Gordon was held to 51 yards on nine carries. He also was blasted when he tried to throw off the jet sweep on the game's first play and was called for intentional grounding. That was the end of UW's trickery.
James White and the barge formation never really took off (it also wasn't blocked the best at times) and Wisconsin never ran a new wrinkle off it to throw a curveball that Stanford wasn't prepared for. Next year, White will be the feature back instead of the gadget back.
"We've got to capitalize on opportunities," said White.
One of three players to be named a first-team All-American the last two seasons, Ball deserves to have his number retired and his name put on the Camp Randall façade. Considering his unselfish decision to come back; how he became a more complete player in the process; overcome a preseason attack, a concussion in game four and transition on the offensive line and left school as the game's most productive touchdown scorer, it shouldn't even be an argument.
Ball rushed 1,830 this season after rushing for 1,923 last year on a better team. He added 22 scores on his way to winning the Doak Walker award.
White deserved his opportunity to shine and was a good sport for what Wisconsin asked him to do. His performance in Indianapolis was one of the season's few offensive highlights. Speaking of highlights, Gordon's performance against Nebraska was an eye opener, but he's going to have to get stronger with the playbook. 2013 opponents will have all season to learn how to defend the jet sweep should Wisconsin want to use it with the new staff.
What could have been had UW's receivers hung on to the football. Jared Abbrederis finished with three catches for 44 yards to lead Wisconsin in both categories, but his drop in the end zone could have been a big play. Wisconsin did make up by scoring on the next drive, so that can be somewhat overlooked.
Chase Hammond's drop in the second half can't continue to happen. Phillips delivered a perfect pass that hit Hammond right in the hands and fell to the turf, getting laid out in the process to add insult to injury. Hammond holds on to that catch and Wisconsin is in business for the first time in the second half.
Fans will complain about Wisconsin not having a deep vertical passing game, but it's hard to throw the ball downfield when your receivers can't prove they can make plays.
Jacob Pedersen – the conference's best tight end – only caught one pass for nine yards and Jordan Fredrick caught his first career touchdown pass late in the second quarter. Sam Arneson and Kenzel Doe also had one catch a piece.
Abbrederis led the team in every receiving category, but he'll be the first to say it was a very challenging year for him on the field. Battling injuries that cost him time, Abbrederis never took the big step from his sophomore to junior year that he was hoping for.
After Abbrederis was a bunch of young, inconsistent playmakers that didn't seem to get better. Part of it was the issues at quarterbacks and the inconsistencies at that position, but nobody really jumped off the page.
Doe and Fredrick showed promised, but need to become players who can take pressure off Abbrederis consistently. Hammond's season peaked in the spring game (never a good sign) and you have to wonder if he will ever get over his health issues. The same goes for Jeff Duckworth, who is becoming a one-catch wonder.
The tight end position, usually an area of strength at Wisconsin, took a step back, as Pedersen admittedly struggled with the No.1 tight end role and all the blocking assignments that come with it. Moving forward into his senior year, he will have to emerge as a bigger weapon. If he doesn't Arneson, who had a big jump this season as a sophomore, will be pushing for playing time.
The only thing that saves this grade is the fact that the receivers and tight ends improved in the blocking at the line of scrimmage and downfield blocking on a weekly basis. But when your main job is to catch the ball, nobody did that with great consistency other than Abbrederis.
Last year we never knew where the ball was going. This year was very predictable, which needs to change moving forward.
It certainly was not a banner year for Wisconsin's offensive line which struggled either moving the ball or finishing drives against elite defenses. Ricky Wagner had a holding penalty wipe out a touchdown run by Ball and failed to blocked Wisconsin-native Ben Gardner on fourth down on Stanford's one-yard line. Even though UW scored on the next drive, seven Badgers points there could have changed the game's complexion.
A third-down screen play looked to be a big gain in the making with Travis Frederick out front, but Frederick didn't hold his block long enough and the tailback, possibly, chose left when he should have gone right. UW came up short and had to punt … again the little things.
"They did make some great adjustments," guard Ryan Groy said of Stanford. "I don't think it was anything crazy. I don't think it was a lot different than what he saw in the first half. We just didn't execute."
Wisconsin didn't give up any sacks, but needed to open more running lanes in the second half. Wisconsin only rushed for 30 yards in the fourth quarter when it needed to pound the ball between the tackles to gain some yards. Of course with no passing game and Stanford loading the box, that task became daunting.
"We went through some serious adversity in this game, starting down 14-0" said Groy. "We had to climb back, fight back and in the end it wasn't enough."
Would this year have different had Mike Markuson set the offensive line back seven months? Maybe. Wisconsin probably wins the Oregon State game and maybe wins the game at Nebraska, but the Badgers made due with a difficult situation. Bart Miller did an excellent job with this group and he deserves to stay with Gary Andersen's first staff. The Badgers' offense ranked No. 5 in scoring during Big Ten play at 30.5 points per game in large part to Miller (and a bad Big Ten) and averaged 247.5 yards per game in conference play this season.
Wisconsin will return three starters next year if Frederick doesn't go pro. I imagine he'll stay, and become the vocal leader of the offense. Groy made great progress this season after bouncing around throughout his career, and Rob Havenstein was generally efficient. UW will need to find a replacement for Wagner and will need to settle on a right guard. Wisconsin went too long into the season without settling on a starting group, and that was an issue that the coaching staff failed to recognize.
Wisconsin needs to be consistently good against everybody Grade: C
The rushing numbers Stanford put up weren't anything eye popping – 35 carries for 187 yards – but the Badgers gave up two rushing touchdowns immediately after allowing a 30-yard pass play. That suggests a moment of shellshock.
Stepfan Taylor was held relatively quiet with 88 yards on 20 carries, but he came up big when his team needed him. After Wisconsin went three-and-out on the first drive of the fourth quarter, Stanford ran a 12-play, 66-yard drive that chewed up 6:22 of game time. In the quarter, Taylor rushed for 39 yards – 25 coming on that drive and the other 14 on the game-clinching drive.
Brendan Kelly finished with three tackles, but his failure to maintain outside contain on a third-and-3, allowing QB Kevin Hogan to scramble for a first down, was huge. Instead of punting, Stanford scored four plays and never trailed the rest of the game.
"We had a good play called and the flag wasn't thrown on that pretty obvious holding call," said Kelly. "You can't point your finger at a hold. They got a first down and they started to get some momentum on us."
Wisconsin couldn't manage any sacks, but Allen and Muldoon each had a tackle for loss while Allen had a pass breakup and the Badgers group did a job stopping Stanford's screen game.
UW held four of its last nine opponents under 15 points and allowed just 18.3 points per game in conference play, the second-best mark among Big Ten teams. The Badgers ranked third in the Big Ten and 21st nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 124.5 yards per game, during the regular season. An experienced front was the big reason for those numbers.
Kelly being back in the fold is a good thing for Wisconsin, who should have a very good front four with Allen and Hemer as senior defensive tackle and Kelly and David Gilbert on the ends. Gilbert fought off a lot of rust this past season and plays really well in spurts, but consistency will be the key.
Wisconsin's pass rush this season was fair and while the Badgers didn't put up huge tackles for loss and sack numbers, they played a lot of teams that either quickly got rid of the ball following a three-step drop or a spread attack.
This group should be the leaders of the defense next season, but all of them need to make significant gains in the offseason to become more active in making plays in the backfield.
Chris Borland finished with nine tackles, but double-digit tackle machine Mike Taylor got very little action thrown his way with only four stops. After watching Taylor for a month on film, it was evident the Cardinal schemed against throwing things his way. Ethan Armstrong finished with four tackles.
"We weren't playing our best football in those first couple drives," said Borland. "A couple of gadget plays hurt, but we pride ourselves on stopping the run so that's what we were stressing on the sidelines. We did an all right job. Would have liked to have done better."
Taylor said Wisconsin didn't make any adjustments at halftime, but instead just started "executing and doing our jobs." If they would have done that from the start, it might have been a different story.
"To be out here three times and lose three times is the worst," said Taylor.
There is no "I" in "team" but there is one in "Mike" and "Chris." Wisconsin's defense gave up just 298.9 yards per game in Big Ten play in large part to Wisconsin forcing opponents to go three-and-out on 42.3 percent of its drives leading up to the bowl season, the third-best rate of any team in the nation.
Of the 163 drives by UW opponents this season (excluding five possessions to end a half), 69 ended without the opponent recording a first down. With Taylor finishing with 123 tackles, giving him 273 over the last two years to lead the nation in that category, you know he was a part of a lot of those stops. That's really impressive.
Borland finished with 104 tackles and will be the face of Wisconsin's defense next year. As good as Borland and Taylor were, Armstrong had the breakout season with 93 tackles less than a year removed from double hip surgery. After securing the starting job in fall camp, Armstrong never relented and provided a good balance in the middle of Wisconsin's defense.
UW has not allowed many "big plays" this season, having given up a play of 20 or more yards just 71 times. That wasn't the case on the first two drives when Stanford each got a 30-plus gain that set up touchdowns. The throw off the reserve is understandable, but Dezmen Southward letting tight end Zach Ertz right past him and not turn around in coverage was poor.
Cromartie was lost in space and practically tackle a Stanford receiver that drew a pass interference penalty, but the Badgers survived without giving up any points.
Southward had seven tackles and one tackle for loss, but that lapse in coverage hurt. Shelton Johnson finished second on the team with eight tackles and played well coming up in run coverage, but came narrowly close to registering an interception that could have swung the tide. Of course, he didn't come as close as Devin Smith, who dropped what could have been a game changer.
Wisconsin limited Stanford to only 33 passing yards in the second half, but a lack of momentum-turning plays hurt the group.
"We had opportunities to make plays to change the game and we didn't capitalize," said Smith.
Only 22 teams have faced more passing attempts this season than the 444 passes thrown by Wisconsin opponents. Still at 196.5 yards allowed per game, the Badgers are one of just 26 FBS programs to allow fewer than 200 passing yards per game this season. That was the big benefit of having three seniors in your defensive backfield.
Smith played at a high level all season and was a welcomed return addition to the cornerback position. As a result, Smith pushed Cromartie to play a higher level, which culminated with a standout game in the Big Ten championship game. Cromartie finished with 62 tackles and one interception while Smith finished with 59 stops.
Kudos to Johnson, who took his captaincy role so seriously he worked tirelessly to get back on the field and in playing shape after breaking his arm in week two of the season. Southward finished with 69 tackles – fourth best on the team after the three linebackers – and continues to get better every season. He'll need to take a big jump next year when Wisconsin breaks in young cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean.
Freshman punter Drew Meyer capped a remarkable debut season with a solid Rose Bowl, punting seven times with a 44.6-yard average, a long of 54, three inside the 20 and no touchbacks. He was the only specialist to really see the field, as Jack Russell kicked both extra points and Kyle French averaged 62.3 yards on his three kickoffs with one touchback.
Abbrederis had no luck on any of Stanford's three punts and Doe didn't have any luck on the two kickoffs he fielded, as Stanford and its power kicker booted three kickoffs deep into the end zone.
Breaking in a new full-time kicker and punter for the first time in four years, Wisconsin should be fairly pleased with the results. Meyer averaged over 40 yards on a school-record 80 punts, including putting 36 inside the 20 and 13 over 50 yards.
Wisconsin's kicking carousel was a bit disconcerting. French went 10-for-16 on field goals and missed a number of key kicks that could have made the difference in game. Russell wasn't much better in missing his two kicks. French needs to improve his consistency and Russell needs to improve his leg strength.
Other than Kenzel Doe's vital punt return for touchdown against Utah State, Wisconsin's returns unit were OK and nothing extraordinary. They were a sound unit that occasionally broke a play. What should be noted if how well Wisconsin's coverage units played throughout the year. It'll be interesting to see how the new coaching staff takes that unit and makes it better.