Multiplicity was the theme from Wisconsin defensive coordinator Chris Ash when he was asked to describe Stanford’s offense during the Badgers’ defensive press conference on Friday.
“They can line up in a power I formation and run downhill power; they can spread you out in run zone read and quarterback run games,” Ash said. “A lot of people can’t do that. They have the personnel to do that. Then you have multiple tight ends that can stretch you down the field and hurt you in the play-action pass game too. They’re very multiple. Both by formations, with play selections, what they can do going from a pro-style to a spread offense.”
Members of Wisconsin’s experienced defensive front — one of the top 15 units in the nation that allowed just 321 yards per game this year — pointed to redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan as the Cardinal’s most significant source of versatility. The midseason replacement at passer has added both athleticism and consistency to the position and will test the Badgers’ talented pass-rushers.
“With a quarterback like Kevin Hogan, defenses need to be disciplined in their assignments and alignments,” said Wisconsin redshirt junior Ethan Hemer. “You need to pass-rush aggressively, but maintain the pocket presence…We don’t want to give him opportunities to sneak through. We don’t want to give him chances to escape pockets. A big focus for us will be keeping him contained, then making him feel our presence.”
Hogan’s favorite targets, a pair of senior tight ends, present the biggest mismatches for the Badgers. 6-foot-6 Zach Ertz and 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo tower above the Wisconsin secondary, which does not have a single starter above 6-foot-2.
Though Ertz and Toilolo combined for just four catches in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Ash will need his defensive backfield’s experience — all four starters are upperclassmen — to make up for its height disadvantage.
“The whole tight end corps is very good,” he said. “We’ve had to put a heavy emphasis throughout this preparation on how to control those guys. I can’t sit here and say we’re going to stop them. But we have to control them and limit the big plays that they’re able to get in the play-action game.”
Just as Stanford’s defenders highlighted the similarities between the two Rose Bowl teams’ offenses earlier in the week, Wisconsin’s representatives agreed that preparations have been made easier by their experience practicing against the Badgers’ own attack.
“[Stanford’s] definitely a very physical team,” Hemer said. “They don’t beat themselves. They do what they do well, and I think it plays into both teams’ advantage that we’ve seen it every day in practice.
“So because of that I foresee a physical, hard-fought game. I mean, there’s two teams cut from the same cloth, if you will, that love to run the ball and play stingy defense. I think it’s going to make a great game.”
Even so, Wisconsin’s defensive staff must be aware of the trick plays and gadgetry that bowl season often brings, as Stanford’s often-conservative coaching staff will have a chance to empty its playbook in one final game.
“When you look at our two teams, yes, there are going to be new wrinkles and adjustment that’s you’re going to have to make,” Ash said. “But for the most part they’re going to run the ball and run the power and run some play-action passes…we will adjust accordingly. Every week there are probably four or five things in the game that you have to adjust that you haven’t seen before.”
The connection most commonly formed between the two offenses involves the two starting running backs, Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball. Both workhorses are experienced and are amongst the most esteemed power backs currently playing in college football.
Though the Badgers were quick to point out their own speedier star’s unique achievements — NCAA career records for total and rushing touchdowns — they acknowledged that Taylor does have the upper-hand in at least one area.
“Stanford’s running back is a little bigger, bigger legs, but still shifty,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Mike Taylor.
With Stanford favored by about a touchdown, some Wisconsin elder statesmen must confront the very real possibility of losing three consecutive Rose Bowls. Though the Badger defense held its own in a 21-19 loss to TCU two years ago, allowing just 301 yards, it was trampled by speedy Oregon (621 yards) in a 45-38 defeat last season.
Taylor, who leads Wisconsin with 120 tackles and 15 for loss, is hoping to end his career on a brighter note.
“You don’t like to think that way,” he said. “It’s very possible that it could happen. The last two years, it’s not like we didn’t try to go out there and win. We gave everything we got. Unfortunately we lost. That’s what the game of football is.”