The statistics have been on the table for Stanford's defense to see for a month now: Wisconsin passed the ball only 10 times on its way to 70 points in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Badgers hand the ball off 70 percent of the time, entrusting a bruising offensive line that averages 326 pounds to do the heavy lifting. Quarterback Curt Phillips is entrusted with limiting mistakes; he's responded by throwing only one interception.
Despite it all, Wisconsin still owns a credible play-action passing threat, one that can be enhanced by the potential return of former starting quarterback Joel Stave. Stave has been cleared to play after breaking his collarbone earlier in the season. Receiver Jared Abbrederis holds his own catching passes. But the Badgers' beef up front, coupled with the team's Montee Ball-led three-headed monster in the backfield, will prime Stanford's defense for the run -- and rightfully so.
This focus will put the onus on a Stanford secondary whose emergence has been the team's defensive difference this season. The coaches will use Alex Carter's physicality to combat the perimeter run game as they did at Oregon, but the freshman must also be ready to spring back into pass coverage at the snap of a finger. Safeties Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds must also succeed in the fine balancing act between run support and play-action awareness. The Farm Boys' depth and newfound back-end speed (thanks for the highlight, Devon Carrington) will come in handy: it'll allow the secondary to cheat up a step against Ball while maintaining the ability to retreat on fakes.
Epic Defensive Effort
Limiting turnovers and attaining offensive efficiency are commonly cited keys to winning big football games. But let's not kid ourselves: Stanford's defense has proven dominant enough to win without the benefit of the those two successes. If this Cardinal team can beat Oregon on the road while going scoreless for 10 straight possessions and losing the turnover battle 3-1, it can beat any opponent even with a paltry offensive effort.
Of course, that's not a safe formula. Playing with fire has already cost Stanford brutal losses at Washington and Notre Dame, so more improvement from Kevin Hogan's crew is always welcome. But if the defense repeats its epic Oregon effort, the one highlighted by 20-deep physical domination and sideline-to-sideline speed featuring marvelous physicality, the program will win its first Rose Bowl as the "Cardinal."
Balanced, Exhausting Attack
Still, who doesn't like a solid offensive attack? Stanford reaches juggernaut level when it enjoys one. Discounting the fluke that was the explosion against paper-thin Arizona, the Cardinal averaged only about 2.5 offensive touchdowns per contest with Josh Nunes under center. Kevin Hogan has upped that production to about 3.3 scores per game (not including the contest against decidedly inferior Colorado), but that's still nowhere near Andrew Luck's level of production, which checked in at over five touchdowns per game.
No one's asking Hogan to fully replicate No. 12, but upping the Cardinal's average production to at least four touchdowns per game would be a good start in paving the road for a 2013 national title bid. That type of output is possible only with a symbiotic relationship between the ground game and downfield passing threats. If Stanford's receivers can get off to a good 2013 start, a balanced performance reminiscent of recent glory is possible. On that note, a bit of encouraging news is that Ty Montgomery looked much healthier at Friday's practice.
The Rose Bowl: It's the mecca of gridiron grandeur. It's an opportunity for Stanford to accomplish something the program hasn't since the days of Indians, Plunkett, and Bunce. Given the potential returning talent, it's also a possible springboard to a 2013 national title run.
It's only fitting, then, that this game will be played on the first day of the New Year. Throwing the X's and O's aside, both Stanford's players and coaches must embrace the opportunity. Last year, the Cardinal executed an excellent gameplan for 59 minutes, but David Shaw failed with an ill-advised field goal decision that took the opportunity to win the Fiesta Bowl out of Luck's hands. The young coach has displayed tremendous growth since, and throughout his second season. Now, he and his team must show their best form to seize January 1.
Five-loss Wisconsin has little to lose. The Badgers are especially dangerous playing for legendary coach Barry Alvarez. Football, of course, is a fiery game that requires a borderline-insane level of emotional investment for success at its highest levels. Come Tuesday, the Cardinal must at least match the guts, intensity, and passion of their opponent.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMLombardi.
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