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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Stanford-Wisconsin not exactly a matchup made in Rose Bowl heaven

The Cardinal and Badgers have a combined seven losses, and both favor conservative, run-based offense. But a closer look suggests it could be an interesting game.

December 31, 2012|Chris Dufresne
  • Tight end Zach Ertz, making a catch in front of UCLA cornerback Sheldon Price, gives Stanford a big advantage heading into the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.
Tight end Zach Ertz, making a catch in front of UCLA cornerback Sheldon Price,… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

The Rose Bowl pregame weather has been about as crummy as the seven combined losses for Stanford and Wisconsin.

It's never good to make Dick Butkus, who made the game-clinching interception for Illinois in the 1964 game, slog through drenching rain during the inaugural Rose Bowl golf tournament.

It's regrettable that the leader of the Big Ten champion chose coaching in Arkansas over coaching in Pasadena.

The timing for this year's Rose Bowl — let's face it — could have also been better.

Last year, a Stanford-Wisconsin matchup would have paired quarterback Andrew Luck against Russell Wilson in a battle of future NFL rookie-of-the-year candidates.

This year it's Kevin Hogan versus Curt Phillips, two quarterbacks who started the season on the bench.

Some of the reporters could have been better prepared.

No Rose Bowl news conference transcript featuring Stanford's Zach Ertz, arguably the best tight end in college football, should ever read like an entry-level interview for Jack in the Box.

Question: Are you a senior?

Ertz: I'm a junior.

Q: What is your major?

Ertz: Industrial engineering.

Q: When do you guys go back to school?

Ertz: School starts the 7th, I believe.

Q: Where are you from?

Ertz: I'm from the East Bay.

Q: So you didn't go very far, did you?

Ertz: No, it's like an hour away.

Q: What part?

Ertz: Alamo.

Q: Well, you didn't go very far.

Ertz: Yeah, exactly.

This year's Rose Bowl, No. 99, seems oddly numbered off. Next year's 100th edition promises to be a double-host jubilee capped by bells, whistles, flyovers and, best of all, the last Bowl Championship Series title game ever played!

So why does Stanford versus Wisconsin even matter?

The Big Ten left its 12-0 team, Ohio State, at home on probation. And although Stanford may be marginally better than Oregon, it certainly is not more entertaining.

The playing style of the schools could be described as neo-Neanderthal, and there's not a chance in the world Stanford Coach David Shaw will channel Woody Hayes and punch a photographer.

This could be the quickest Rose Bowl game since before TV timeouts, a Greco-Roman wrestling interlock of handoffs and clock management.

"We're going to run the ball," Shaw warned television viewers this week. "We're going to run the ball between the tackles. That's just what we do. . . . So that's what you're going to see from us, which is great, because that's what you're going to see from Wisconsin also."

Wisconsin's campaign manager confirmed it is running the same 30-second commercial with an addendum from its interim coach: "My name is Barry Alvarez, and I approved this message."

One reason Alvarez could seamlessly roll out of retirement to coach this game, replacing the Hog-bound Bret Bielema, is the game might not be that much different from Wisconsin's win over Stanford in the 2000 Rose Bowl.

"You know I think they play similar," Alvarez said, recalling his third Rose Bowl win. "They ran the ball well the last time around; they could throw it, and they were balanced. I think they're very similar teams."

Wisconsin has run the ball 590 times this season compared with only 274 passing attempts. Stanford has rushed it 514 times compared with 379 passes.

"I happen to think that's how you play football," Alvarez said.

To contrast, Washington State ran 252 times this year and attempted 624 passes.

This Rose Bowl does not set up as well as some others, but the participants ask only that you give it a chance.

Wisconsin's 8-5 record is lousy, but dig deeper and you'll find the Badgers are nine points from being undefeated.

Wisconsin lost two games in regulation by three points and three games in overtime.

"Underappreciated," said Montee Ball, the team's star back. "That's exactly what I tell a lot of people, that our record doesn't show how good we are."

Wisconsin may be disenchanted after three straight trips to Disneyland, but few Rose Bowl teams have had as much to prove. The Badgers don't want to be branded as three-straight losers following defeats to Texas Christian and Oregon in 2011 and '12.

"A lot of players don't have the big eyes anymore because we've been here," Ball said. "It's our third time. Everyone is used to the atmosphere, the fast life of L.A. and Pasadena."

Ball also said his team is rolling now after its 70-31 rout of Nebraska in the Big Ten title game.

Stanford, as a football program, doesn't raise goose pimples. The team is top 10 but couldn't even fill its own stadium for the Pac-12 title game.

If they don't care, why should we?

Oregon (11-1) ended up with a better overall record but couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead against Stanford in Eugene.

The Cardinal, though, is also only a couple of plays from playing for the national title. There was an inexplicable loss at Washington in which Stanford squandered a last chance to win when one of its players jumped offside. The defeat at Notre Dame, decided in overtime and in the replay booth, will be debated for years.

Both losses came before Shaw made the quarterback switch to Hogan, who has gone 4-0 as the starter and invigorated the post-Luck offense. All four of the wins have come against ranked opponents. Since replacing starter Josh Nunes during the first half Nov. 3 against Colorado, Hogan has completed 72.7% of his passes with eight touchdowns, and has rushed for 193 yards. He was named most valuable player in Stanford's Pac-12 title-game win over UCLA.

You can wonder about Stanford being 13-0 had the move to Hogan been made sooner, but the smart people who follow and coach at Stanford say the redshirt freshman wasn't ready.

Even Hogan says it:

"I think my knowledge of the playbook probably held me back," he acknowledged. "The coaches knew I wasn't ready. I wasn't ready to go in at the time."

After a sluggish start for the bowl, the weather, the reporters and the teams, it appears everyone is ready now.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/DufresneLATimes

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