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Rose Bowl Preview: An Early Look at Stanford

Go Mighty Card says this upcoming Rose Bowl, win or lose, will be about the arrival of Stanford Football as an elite college football program.

Ezra Shaw

Typically, the month or so leading up to the Rose Bowl consists solely of relentless opponent breakdown. The past two years, we were asking ourselves, "How in the world will Wisconsin slow down Oregon?" Or, "Just how good is TCU, really?"

We eventually found the answers to both of those questions -- Oregon was pretty damn fast, and TCU was indeed pretty good.

This month, though? We're tracking flights out of Boise State and discussing the coaching merits of Brad Childress (are there any?). Bret Bielema's abrupt departure from Madison was the catalyst for all that, and suddenly, the actual Rose Bowl match-up has taken a backseat.

No longer, I say. We'll have much Stanford coverage in the coming weeks, but right now we'll get it started with a Q&A with Hank of Go Mighty Card, a a fine Cardinal blog "Dedicated to the Character and Cruelty of Stanford Football." I like it. Hank's also published a Q&A we did with him to preview Wisconsin, and you can read that right here.

B5Q: To begin, tell me about Stanford's season. What went right and wrong, and where does the Cardinal find itself entering the Rose Bowl?

Hank: There are two ways you can look at the Cardinal's season, and you can easily find Stanford fans that have latched on to one interpretation or the other. Those drinking from the half-empty glass see the failures from the early part of the season, especially the loss to Washington, and blame Coach David Shaw for sticking with Josh Nunes at quarterback. That loss wasn't the beginning of the quarterback controversy; it simply added fuel to the fire. Most fans, I think, expected Brett Nottingham to the win job out of training camp, so even as Nunes was winning games (or, more accurately, not losing them), there were those who remained critical and clamored for a change.

After Nunes' stunning five-touchdown performance (two passing, three rushing) in a comeback win over Arizona, it looked like he might actually be the man for the job, but then Notre Dame happened. The college football world is busy falling in the love with the Irish all over again, but Stanford fans know two things: one, that game never should've gotten to overtime; and two, Stepfan Taylor scored not once, but twice in that overtime period, no matter what the officials might've said.

In many ways, that game was the beginning of the end for Josh Nunes. The offense was stagnant, and if it hadn't been for the defense, probably the best defense in Stanford history, the team probably would've been 2-4 instead of 4-2. After a comfortable win against Cal and a sticky victory over lowly Washington State, the writing was on the wall. It was time for a change, but Shaw went with Kevin Hogan instead of Nottingham, and everything has changed. Hogan entered in the third series of the Colorado game, and he hasn't left since, starting the final four games and earning a 4-0 record against four ranked teams. I haven't yet hired a research assistant, but I don't need one to tell me that Hogan's probably the only quarterback in history to defeat ranked teams in the first four starts of his career.

There are those in the fan base who look at this season and think only about what might've been. If Hogan had been the starter from Day 1, he would've easily beaten Washington, they claim, and he also would've made the difference in South Bend. By this line of thinking, Stanford -- not Notre Dame -- should be playing Alabama for the national championship. I tend to reject that. First of all, I don't think Hogan was ready to play back in September or October; otherwise he would've been playing.

For me, I'm glad to be going to the Rose Bowl. This was supposed to be the season that Stanford football faded back into irrelevance, but instead the team won 11 games, won the Pac-12 Championship, and his headed to its third straight BCS bowl game. Better than that, the Cardinal should be better in 2013 and better still in 2014. The 2011 Orange Bowl and the 2012 Fiesta Bowl were really about the greatness of Andrew Luck. The 2013 Rose Bowl -- win or lose -- will be about the arrival of Stanford Football as an elite college football program.

B5Q: What are your thoughts on this Rose Bowl match-up? I'm sure you've heard all about Wisconsin's five-loss season. Is this game an "injustice," or some other bastardization of the Granddaddy of Them All?

Hank: I'll admit that I was rooting for Nebraska to win the Big Ten championship game, but not because of any animosity towards the Badgers. I simply wanted the Cardinal to have a chance to continue the streak against ranked opponents. But as I said above, it's hard to complain about a Rose Bowl berth, and I haven't heard any fans describing Wisconsin as anything less than a worthy opponent. In fact, there are a lot of us who still remember the 2000 Rose Bowl and are eager for the chance to exact some measure of revenge.

B5Q: Kevin Hogan and Josh Nunes; what's the story with Stanford's quarterbacks? I assume Hogan is definitely starting in the Rose Bowl?

Hank: Kevin Hogan is starting the Rose Bowl, and he's starting the next 28 games after that, with an option for 14 more if he decides to return for his fourth year of eligibility in 2015. As I detailed above, he completely changed the complexion of the offense. Under Nunes, opposing defenses simply weren't afraid of the passing game at all. They deployed eight men in the box, and sometimes even nine, daring Nunes to throw. Nunes rarely made them pay. Worse than that, there was no longer any deception from the Cardinal in short yardage situations. Hogan was given a few plays here and there during the early part of the season, but almost always to run the ball. When Shaw began talking about expanding his role, there was concern about Hogan's passing skills, but those were quickly put to rest. He isn't a runner, he's a quarterback who can run, and these talents have opened up the playbook and invigorated the offense. He's probably good for about five to 10 designed runs per game, but he also makes big plays when scrambling out of a pass play.

He still makes mistakes, but he's progressing quickly and has gained the trust of his teammates and coaches. The Stanford offense demands that quarterbacks change plays at the line of scrimmage frequently, and according to Shaw, Hogan checks out of plays as much as 40 percent of the time. With Hogan at quarterback, Stanford finally has a competent offense to go along with its elite defense. Since he took over, the Cardinal has been one of the four or five best teams in the country.

B5Q: On that note, how is Stanford's offense? How do you expect the Cardinal to attack the Badgers' defense?

Hank: Stanford will probably always be a run-first offense, though certainly not nearly to the extent of Wisconsin's. On the strength of his third-straight thousand-yard season, Stepfan Taylor recently became the school's all-time leading rusher. You can look for him to run almost exclusively between the tackles behind Stanford's powerful offensive line. Stanford will run outside occasionally, either with Hogan running a read-option or the lightning-quick Kelsey Young taking a handoff on a jet sweep. Stanford wide receivers have been a disappointment this season, but the tight ends have made up for it. Zach Ertz has been on just about every All-America list I've seen (though he mysteriously lost the Mackey Award to Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert), and Levine Toilolo is a matchup nightmare at 6'8". We may see some things from the wide receivers, but expect Hogan, Taylor, and the tight ends to carry the load.

B5Q: Defensively, Stanford is the third-best team against the run. Wisconsin is the nation's 12th-best rushing team. Who has the edge here?

Hank: Here's an interesting bit of trivia. Not only is Stanford the third-ranked rushing defense in America, they've accomplished that against some quality competition. They've already faced three of the four first- and second-team All-America running backs (Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, Oregon's Kenjon Barner and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin) and Montee Ball will be the fourth. Stanford's statement game this year was obviously the win over Oregon in Autzen Stadium. Even as the team has improved over the past five years, they've always seemed a bit out of Oregon's league. This year, though, they dominated the Ducks on their own turf, and the effort was led by the defense. Oregon was always too fast for the Cardinal. They'd simply spread the defense out thin, then gash them for long gains. Stanford's defense has been built to stop teams like this, and I'd put Wisconsin into that category. The linebackers, led by Chase Thomas, Trent Murphy, and Shayne Skov, could be the best group in the country, but the true story of the 2012 defense lies in the tremendous improvement in the secondary. Free safety Ed Reynolds has gotten most of the attention for his three (should've been four) pick-sixes, but true freshman cornerback Alex Carter has been the revelation. Watch for him to have a big game.

B5Q: Stanford has already sold out its allotment of Rose Bowl tickets. Is it safe to say this is a heavily hyped event around the university?

Hank: I don't think the Rose Bowl carries quite the weight with Pac-12 fans that it does in Big Ten country, but it's still certainly a big deal, and in general the campus is much more excited about the team than it was when I was a student. Walking on campus on a game day Saturday afternoon, a visitor would notice impromptu tailgates outside dormitories and groups of students all decked out in Cardinal red. It almost feels like a football school. When Stanford played against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl 13 years ago, you couldn't give your tickets away. That won't be the case this year.

B5Q: Prediction time? I know it's early, and I struggled with mine. But this match-up seems to be yielding a wide range of expectations.

Hank: I'll admit that Wisconsin's seventy-point explosion against Nebraska scared me a bit, and I'm concerned about the jolt of adrenaline that Barry Alvarez will likely give them, but I still feel good about this game. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason has proven himself to be a master tactician, so given five weeks to prepare for the Badgers, he'll definitely come up with the right scheme. More important than that, he's got the right horses to execute it. On offense, I think Hogan will continue his improvement, and the offensive line should play well. I'll pick Stepfan Taylor to win the MVP as the Cardinal cruises to a 31-14 win.