Stanford's pass defense may be one of the best college football has seen in years. Its run defense is sharp, as well, but can it hold up to the battering ram that is Wisconsin's three-headed rushing attack?
The last two Rose Bowls have seen the Wisconsin Badgers matched up against excellent offenses filled with NFL talent. Andy Dalton's TCU squad poured on 41.6 points per game and rushed for 247 yards per game behind the solid Ed Wesley-Matthew Tucker duo. And nobody needs a reminder as to the quality of Oregon's offense last season -- the Ducks fell just short of their season average 46.1 as they posted 45 points to defeat the Badgers in last year's game.
Bluntly, Stanford is not Oregon, and it's not TCU. The Cardinal are not last year's Wisconsin Badgers, and on offense they're not even this year's Wisconsin Badgers. Much like Wisconsin, Stanford struggled through a quarterback change, with Josh Nunes playing the role of Danny O'Brien and Kevin Hogan as Joel Stave. Hogan, unlike Stave, stayed healthy the whole year, largely stabilizing the offense over its last five games.
However, as good as Stanford's Stepfan Taylor is, he doesn't compare to Montee Ball and the Badgers' three-headed rushing attack. Taylor needed 302 carries to get to 1,442 yards (4.8 per carry) and 12 touchdowns. Ball used 30 extra carries to pick up nearly 300 more yards, and the cavalry behind him in James White (119 carries, 802 yards) and Melvin Gordon (53 rushes, 570 yards) far outpaces anything Stanford has supporting Taylor. Hogan was the Cardinal's second-leading rusher with 209 on 48 carries.
Both offenses had their hiccups, but by and large the Badgers were superior in the post-O'Brien era (as measured by expected points):
Stanford has never pretended to win with offense this season. The offense completely tanked in both losses -- against Washington (a top-25 defensive team by S&P+) and Notre Dame (a top-5 defensive team, at the least) -- but Stanford's defense kept both games close, with national finalist Notre Dame winning only on a questionable goal-line call in overtime.
The Cardinal has the 18th-best pass defense in the country by yards per attempt at 6.1 and a phenomenal rush defense allowing just 2.8 yards per rush. However, purely going by the NCAA's reported yardage undermines Stanford's defensive balance. The Cardinal lead the nation in sacks with 56 and share the national lead in sack yardage with Tulsa at 336. Placing the sacks in the passing side of the ledger where they belong (HINT HINT, NCAA) puts Stanford at 4.3 yards per rush allowed (1,476 on 345 carries) and just 5.0 yards per pass attempt allowed.
In fact, I think there's a reasonable argument to be made that Stanford's pass defense -- particularly, the ability to create sacks -- is better than its run defense. Despite dropping back roughly 45 times per game, Cardinal opponents are generating just about 220 yards of passing offense per game (and also throwing a little over one interception per game).
Stanford has pass rushers all across the field, sporting 14 players with at least one sack and a crazy 12 with at least two. Particularly watch for linebacker Trent Murphy (10 sacks, 18 TFL), linebacker Chase Thomas (7.5 sacks, 14.5 TFL) and defensive end Ben Gardner (7.5 sacks, 14.5 TFL), though the beauty of Stanford's defensive effort is how the entire front seven can create pressure at any time. Stanford's 56 sacks is the most for a team since CFBStats.com has data (going back to 2007) in any conference, much less a BCS one.
Pair that with a rush defense able to pin teams in second and third-and-long situations, and it's a recipe for punt after punt. Wisconsin is unlikely to abandon the run as quickly as many of Stanford's opponents -- Notre Dame was the only opponent to attempt more runs (40) than passes (32, including sacks) against Stanford. The Curt Phillips Wisconsin Offense will likely lead to the same thing even if the Badgers fall behind early, unlike many of Stanford's opponents this season.
Stanford's run defense obviously deserves respect, but teams that have kept running into the wall have found some success. Notre Dame racked up 174 rushing yards on 40 non-sack carries. Washington and Arizona each found over 140 on over 30 carries. And UCLA rushed for a crazy 295 yards (194 on 19 Jonathan Franklin carries) in its Pac-12 Championship Game loss.
Throughout the season, in fact, Stanford has given up about an extra yard per carry for every six extra times a team rushes:
Expect Wisconsin to run the ball with gusto on New Year's Day. The Badgers are averaging 45.4 rushes per game on the season and have really shifted to the run in the absence of Joel Stave. Wisconsin ran 64 times against Indiana, 56 against Ohio State, 50 times against Nebraska and 43 times against Penn State. Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon should all be expected to see a heavy workload against Stanford. Throw them at the Cardinal line enough times and it just might crack -- it has on occasion this season.
Wisconsin has faced tough defenses throughout the Big Ten slate -- it's about all the conference has to offer at this point -- but Stanford will be the toughest test of the season. The Badgers will have to pound the ground game and avoid situations forcing Curt Phillips to air it out -- that is, execute their game plan to near perfection -- to overcome the tough Cardinal defense at the Rose Bowl.