By Joseph Beyda
Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason and five Cardinal defenders held sessions with the media on Thursday before the team began practices for Tuesday’s Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.
Mason took time to praise his defense, which broke the school record for sacks in a season (56) and ranked in the top five nationally in rushing defense, sacks and tackles for loss.
“They’re football junkies,” he said. “They love football. They bleed red and practice hard, as hard as any group I’ve ever coached, NFL, college or any other group.
“You look at what this group has done, and it’s obliviated the records that were here before them,” Mason added. “This is a prideful group. This group works extremely hard at doing the little things. We talk about a fist of fingers. This group is one big fist. They don’t care about the individual accolades. All they care about is the win.”
A main focus was moving past the team’s defensive struggles in the Pac-12 Championship Game, when the No. 6 Cardinal (11-2, 8-1 Pac-12) allowed 284 yards rushing — more than three times its average on the season — and nearly lost to a UCLA team that it had dominated just six days before.
“We slipped up a little bit,” said senior defensive end Ben Gardner. “We have a little sour taste in our mouth from that. So we have to come back and bring our A-game. Otherwise the Badgers have the running attack that can make you pay.”
“We’ve got to go back to the fundamentals,” added junior free safety Ed Reynolds. “It’s tackling. Finding gaps. Making sure as a secondary we’re able to fill the holes when need be, and make sure tackles. It doesn’t have to be a big hit. Doesn’t have to be some huge shot, but it has to be the sure shot.”
The Badgers (8-5, 4-4 Big Ten), on the other hand, are coming off a dominant 70-31 win against No. 14 Nebraska in their conference championship game.
Wisconsin scored 35 consecutive points in a span of 16 minutes and 48 seconds between the late-first and early-third quarters. All five of those touchdowns were accounted for by the Badgers’ three running backs: senior star Montee Ball, junior speedster James White and redshirt freshman specialist Melvin Gordon.
“It’s going to come down to adjustments,” Mason said. “You watched them in the Big Ten Championship Game and they just kept going. They didn’t stop. It was a leaky faucet that kept going, kept going and kept going. Eventually it just filled the room.”
Wisconsin comes into this week’s matchup with a bit of a chip on its shoulder, having lost in each of the last two Rose Bowls.
“They want to walk out of here with some hardware; so do we,” Mason said. “We didn’t come here to get a t-shirt or a hat. We came here to win.”
Stanford’s biggest task on Tuesday will be stopping Ball, who holds NCAA career records for total and rushing touchdowns and won this year’s Doak Walker Award as the best tailback in the nation.
“He’s a great runner behind his pads,” said senior linebacker Shayne Skov. “It really goes unnoticed, but every time he gets hit, he falls forward five more yards, which makes a big difference.”
Mason described Ball’s abilities as a mix between power and speed, complimenting his vision and his improvement as a senior. He also added that the Cardinal’s encounters with other electric running backs this season may not translate directly to the Rose Bowl.
But the challenge doesn’t stop with Ball, as White and Gordon each compiled 100-yard games in their conference-title matchup with Nebraska.
“Montee Ball is probably as good a back as I’ve seen on tape,” Mason said. “But when you talk about the three-headed monster they have at running back, it goes much deeper than that.
“I mean, Montee Ball may have the lowest average per carry of the three.” (He does.)
Several Cardinal defenders were asked if it would be different playing a team that doesn’t like to pass — in its last two wins, Wisconsin threw the ball just 15 times — after playing the whole season in the quarterback-heavy Pac-12.
“It’s not going to change the way we play,” said senior linebacker Trent Murphy. “We’re still going to be us and do what we do best, and that’s play aggressive. But we’ve always been a stop-the-run defense first, so that’s our first priority, and then after that we’ll get after the passer, hopefully.”
Reynolds explained that the secondary would still have to remain vigilant despite the Badgers’ tendency to run. Stanford won’t be able to focus exclusively on Wisconsin’s ground game, especially due to the effectiveness with which it has used the play-action pass.
Though the Badgers run the ball much more than the balanced Cardinal, Stanford’s own offense might be a better approximation of Wisconsin’s than that of any Cardinal opponent this year.
“We go against our offense every day for three weeks in camp, and we go against each other every so often in practice during the season,” Reynolds said. “It will be good to have this matchup because we feel very comfortable with it.”
Gardner noted the similarities between Wisconsin’s offensive line techniques and the ones employed by former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh.
“They’ll give you any look you can imagine,” he said. “They’ll dress it up with motions and shifts and all that stuff to try to get you out of place…But we’ve seen it. We’ve run that type of offense at Stanford.”
“They’re able to do a good job of moving the line of scrimmage and creating gaps for their running backs,” Mason noted.
Stanford enters the postseason with redemption on its mind after last year’s heartbreaking defeat in the Fiesta Bowl, when the Cardinal fell 41-38 in overtime against Oklahoma State.
“That game was a great game,” Gardner said. “We felt like we did enough things to probably end up winning the game. But one of the things that we’ve been preaching since we all came in as freshman is that we need to finish, finish, finish…It’s something that we weren’t able to do.”
The lessons from last January paid dividends for Stanford through the rest of 2012, as it ended up playing in nine games decided by a touchdown or less this season. The Cardinal won seven of those contests, including crucial late-season matchups with ranked foes Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA.
“We’ve obviously gone through this past offseason fully aware that we lost that game,” Skov said, “and it hurts and it kind of stings a little bit and stays at your side.”
Skov missed that Fiesta Bowl after his 2011 campaign ended with an ACL injury in the third game of the season.
But the Cardinal’s emotional leader already has a reputation as a postseason performer after he corralled Virginia Tech’s slippery Tyrod Taylor in the 2011 Orange Bowl. Skov registered 12 tackles and three sacks in Stanford’s 40-12 win.
“I missed about twice as many tackles as I had in that game if you go back and watch it,” he joked Thursday. “It’s one of my biggest frustrations. I could have broken the NCAA sack record if I had actually made half the tackles.”
It’s been a steady season for Skov, who leads the Cardinal with 73 tackles and has slowly been regaining his explosive form from that Orange Bowl.
“It’s hard to realize in the first couple of weeks what you’ve got ahead of you,” he said of his recovery. “Then you just do what any mountain climber or marathon runner would, you put your first foot in front of the other, and keep going, one after the other. You just stack days into weeks, weeks into months, and soon enough, you’re back.”
Wisconsin native Ben Gardner says he rooted for the Badgers when they met the Cardinal in the 2000 Rose Bowl, though that won’t be the case this time around. He was only offered a walk-on spot by Wisconsin, after all.
“Stanford obviously being my only Division-I offer, it just gave you that sense that you had to come in and prove yourself early on,” Gardner said. “But I think that was four years ago, so I’m not sure it fuels me anymore…those team goals that we set are now what fuel me over anything that happened in my recruiting process.”
Teammates recalled that a high-school Gardner predicted he would earn a starting job by the time he graduated, even though he was the lowest-rated recruit in his Stanford class.
Also garnering hype has been Gardner’s magic mullet. Fellow defenders blame Gardner for the Fiesta Bowl loss since he opted to shave his hair before the game, and as much as he wants to redeem himself they won’t let him risk another haircut this season.
“I wanted to prove it was an aberration last year,” Gardner said. “But they wouldn’t let me do it. I think an uprising would have started in the locker room if I had done it, so I’m keeping it. I’m rocking it for this game.”
This will be the last career game for fifth-year senior Chase Thomas, who will go down as one of the best linebackers in school history. Thomas passed up a likely early-round draft selection last offseason to return for one more year on the Farm, and he and Stanford’s four other redshirt seniors were able to achieve their ultimate goal this time around.
“This year we finally earned our bowl spot,” Thomas said. “We earned our right to play in the Rose Bowl by winning the Pac-12 Championship. That makes it that much more special.
“We definitely thought at some point we could win the Pac-12 Championship,” he added, remembering back to his first days at Stanford. “But if you had said we were going to three straight BCS games and top it off with a Pac-12 Championship Game without Andrew Luck and those other guys that came into the class, that would be a little more doubtful.”
A team captain, Thomas has made some of his biggest strides as a leader this season. Though he admits he’s not as vocal as Skov, Thomas has made his presence felt as a self-proclaimed “lead-by-example” player.
“For me to have an extension of myself being out there with Chase, it’s unbelievable,” Mason said. “He knows exactly what I’m thinking. We talk about it. He makes more adjustments than I do, which is fun.”
Happy as Mason may be, Thomas isn’t known for being all smiles on the football field.
“He’s a guy that’s not real friendly on game day, and we love that about him,” Gardner said. “Yesterday at Disneyland might have been the first time I’ve ever seen him smile.”