There has never been a Rose Bowl quite like this one.
Of all the legendary running backs who have played in The Granddaddy of them All — O.J. Simpson, Archie Griffin, Charles White, Ron Dayne, Reggie Bush, LaMichael James — none has done what Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball are about to do.
Taylor and Ball have combined for 9,252 career rushing yards, the largest total for two starting running backs the history of the Rose Bowl. The previous record, set by Ball and James last year, was a measly 8,069 yards, and this will be just the fourth Rose Bowl in the last 40 years to feature two tailbacks who have combined for at least 7,000 over their careers.
“It says that both teams are committed to running the football, and we both obviously have talented backs,” said senior defensive end Ben Gardner. “From Stepfan’s standpoint, he’s our workhorse and he’s really the pulse of our team. We know when all else fails, we can ride his back and he’ll take us where we need to go.”
But Stanford’s career leader in rushing yards, carries and 100-yard games isn’t about to get caught up in the battle of the backs.
“I try not to think like that,” Taylor said of the upcoming showdown with Ball. “You know he’s there, but like I said, I can’t play on defense. I’m not playing against the other running backs, so I focus on offense and controlling what I can control.”
Taylor’s 35 carries and 177 rushing yards in last year’s Fiesta Bowl were also Stanford bowl-game records. As the star of a Cardinal offense that has favored the run even more so in 2012 — Taylor has carried 302 times, up from 242 in as many games last season — he’ll be looking to notch a third consecutive bowl performance over 100 yards.
But to do so he’ll have to get past a Wisconsin (8-5, 4-4 Big Ten) defense that ranks 21st in the nation against the run, which statistically makes for Taylor’s greatest challenge since the Cardinal (11-2, 8-1 Pac-12) played Notre Dame (fourth-best against the run) in Stanford’s last loss.
“We know it’s going to be a physical game,” Taylor said. “The tougher team out there is going to get it.
“They’re a stingy team. Once the play’s there you’ve got to get it. It’s a lot of game-planning, attention to detail and just trusting the game scheme, not trying to go out there and do something you haven’t done all year.”
Stanford’s defense, meanwhile, will be tasked with controlling the statistical behemoth that is Montee Ball, who holds NCAA records for total and rushing touchdowns, has racked up more yards and points than any other active player and will be playing in his third consecutive Rose Bowl.
Ball needs 150 more yards to break the Rose Bowl career record of 446, set by fellow Badger Ron Dayne against the Cardinal on Jan. 1, 2000.
“[Ball] is really the total package,” Gardner said. “He’s a big back, very powerful. He breaks a lot of tackles but he can also break away and make guys miss. He uses his spin move very well to bounce off contact and he’s got a lot of beef in front of him with big offensive linemen.”
The Cardinal’s front seven, which boasts the nation’s third best rush defense, has already gone up against its fair share of elite tailbacks: Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey, UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin and Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner. Stanford is 4-0 against those Pac-12 heavyweights.
But that experience may not translate directly to facing Ball.
“He’s a different kind of back,” said Stanford defensive line coach Randy Hart. “This guy combines power with the ability to move, so he’s kind of a combination of all of them thrown into one. He’ll be a tough one to deal with, and again, we’ve got to have our best game tackling to win this game.”
“The most similar to it would be playing against Stepfan and our own offense,” Gardner noted. “The types of formations and the heavy sets that our team runs are similar to what Wisconsin will bring at you.”
The Badgers are even more dedicated to the run (handing the ball off 68 percent of the time) than the Cardinal (58 percent) is. That approach paid dividends in the Big Ten Championship Game, when unranked Wisconsin ran for 539 yards and upset No. 14 Nebraska 70-31.
“And if you’re good enough to put 539 yards on Nebraska, you’re a doggone good football team with doggone good backs,” Hart said.
Ball accounted for 202 of those yards, but it was redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon who led the Badgers with 216 on the ground. Wisconsin even had a third back, junior James White, above 100 yards on the game.
“They’ve got a great mix of three: Ball’s the power guy, White’s the quick guy and Gordon’s the burner,” Gardner said. “Pick your poison, we’re going to have to stop all three of them somehow.
“We’re not sure how we’re going to do it just yet, but we’re going to do our best.”
Though Stanford hasn’t gotten many big yardage games from its backups this season, the Cardinal has benefited from all-around rushing performances in each of its last two bowls. Short-yardage specialist Jeremy Stewart broke long runs in both the 2011 Orange Bowl and 2012 Fiesta Bowl, picking up 164 yards on just eight carries in those two games.
Junior Anthony Wilkerson, sophomore Remound Wright and sophomore Ricky Seale will be looking to make their presence felt similarly next Tuesday.
“In bowl games we’ve had opportunities to put other backs in, and they’ve shown that they can play,” Taylor said. “It’s just them waiting for their shot, and once they get it they took advantage of it.”
Taylor and Ball will highlight the Rose Bowl rushing extravaganza on Jan. 1 at 1:30 p.m.