[Editor’s note: in this segment, Andrew Coppens and the writers at wisco.com offer their answers to burning questions Duck fans want to know about their Rose Bowl opponent and their fans. Part two of a series.]
1. DSH: The Badgers and Ducks are a little similar in their histories. Both have emerged as Top 25 programs in the ’90s and 2000s under quality coaches, but neither school has won a national championship. How important is a Rose Bowl win to the perception and reputation of the Wisconsin program and Bret Bielema as a coach?
Photo left: De’Anthony Thomas found the end zone 16 times this season, a school record for a true freshman, but can the Ducks’ blur-fast offense overcome Wisconsin’s size and power? Andrew Coppens of wiscobadgers.com weighs in with smashmouth answers to ten quick questions from DSH (insidesocal.com photo).
Andy: I think winning this game is huge for the reputation of this program. You are right in the fact that both teams are kind of in the same situation in trying to get into that “national” kind of level in terms of respect. A win in the Rose Bowl will really cement the Badgers as worthy of that discussion and can only help in expanding our recruiting base. I’m sure it’s the same in Pac-12 land, but all eyes are on the Rose Bowl as the goal every season in Big Ten Country.
2. DSH: What do you see as the Badgers’ biggest edge facing Oregon, and their biggest challenge?
Andy: I’ll start with the biggest challenge first and that is finding a way to replicate the speed of Oregon’s offense in preperation for the game. Playing at a higher tempo isn’t necessarily the Badgers bread and butter, so that will be interesting. The biggest edge has to be our offensive line. They simply maul guys up front and lead the way for the nation’s best running back Montee Ball and I believe we outweigh your defensive line by an average of 50 pounds up front. One of the biggest mistakes teams make is thinking they are big and slow, all of these guys are pretty athletic and can move well too.
3. Mid-season, Wisconsin looked like a contender for the national title with an efficient, mobile quarterback, a power running game and a stifling defense, but then there was that awful two-game slide, losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. What happened? And how much has this team improved during the year?
Andy: What had happened was… well, the big play killed us in both games. Realistically there is a feeling amongst the fans that we literally were two plays away from the National Championship game. In the Michigan State game it was a last second Hail Mary play that did us in and then against Ohio State we allowed a WR to slip behind our safeties and ended up being wide open as OSU left virtually no time on the clock for us to try and come back with.
Overall, I’d say that the defense has only gotten better throughout the season. Linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor have really formed an amazing partnership as the season went on and are a force to be reckoned with at this point.
4. The Badgers lost a close game to TCU in last year’s Rose Bowl. What are the Wisconsin players saying about going back–is there a strong sense of mission and finishing the job, or is it more like “different team, different year?”
Andy: It’s a bit of both. This team has really carried the feeling of that loss last year into this season, but they also have a realization that this year is different and distinct from last season. The players that were major contributors on that Rose Bowl team have openly talked about not being lost in the moment and treating this year much more like a business trip and I think that’s exactly how it should be.
5. What is the perception of Oregon and Oregon football in the Midwest? Is it dominated by the Nike connection or the spread offense? Do you see the Ducks as a soft team or a finesse team?
Andy: I think the perception around the fan base is that we doubt Oregon can play a smash mouth type of game, but that we respect what Oregon does offensively. I don’t think many fans honestly know what to expect out of this game because they may not have seen Oregon play outside of the LSU game and/or the Pac-12 Championship. Of course the Nike connection is a topic and I guess that plays into the label of being “soft” as some see a program that’s willing to just do whatever an apparel company wants as not having a backbone, although I don’t subscribe to that thought myself.
6. Wisconsin has the smashmouth reputation, with the offensive front averaging something like 323 pounds per man. Who are the standouts on that unit? Do you see this as a game where they’ll be able to dominate the line of scrimmage and control the clock?
Andy: The entire starting offensive line earned all-conference honors if that tells you anything about the level of talent on the offensive line. There is a lot of talent on the line, but I’d say the two biggest standouts are center Peter Konz (a junior that may declare for the NFL draft) and guard Kevin Zeitler. Both earned 1st team all-conference honors and very well could be 1st or 2nd round picks in the upcoming NFL draft. As I stated above the offensive line has a huge weight advantage and I believe that the best way to defeat Oregon is to keep their offense off the field, luckily we have the type of offense that can grind it out when they want or go quick strike as well.
7. Talk a little about the Wisconsin defense, which sometimes gets overlooked with all the offensive firepower of Wilson, Ball and Toon. Chip Kelly was saying yesterday that the Badgers have a couple of outstanding linebackers, two guys among the national leaders with over 130 tackles for the season.
Andy: One thing people totally underestimate is our defense which is ranked 8th in the FBS in total defense. The pass defense is really the most underestimated part of the team as they rank 3rd in the country, only giving up 155 yards a game. The two guys that have been huge in the passing game are seniors Aaron Henry (Safety) and Antonio Fenelus (CB).
You mentioned the other best kept secret, our linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. Both are in the top 20 nationally in terms of tackles with both of them over 130 total tackles. It’s been nice having them both on the field at the same as both have shown us talent but haven’t been able to stay healthy for a full season until this year.
8. The early line had the Ducks as a slight favorite in the Rose Bowl. Did that surprise you? What do you see as the keys to this game, and how do you see it playing out? And what are some of the key matchups?
Andy: I wouldn’t say I was surprised that we were underdogs going into this game. Wisconsin isn’t exactly the flashiest program out there and we are fairly used to being underestimated outside of the Big Ten. I think the key to the game is which defense can slow the other offense down. For Oregon that means getting 3 and outs, but for Wisconsin that literally means “slowing” down Oregon by not allowing them the big plays and keeping Thomas in the pocket.
I’m really interested to see our linebackers against probably the best running back we’ve seen in quite some time in LaMichael James. It should be a really good battle.
9. The national championship game is an all-SEC show this year and that’s increased interest in a playoff, whether the plus-1, or an 8-team or 16-team tournament. It seems like teams from the Big 10 or PAC-12 have to be perfect to get any chance at national recognition or a shot at the SEC’s little party, and Oklahoma State got shafted this year. Where do you stand on the BCS and playoff proposals, particularly as the Badgers were playing some of the best football in the country at the end of the year?
Andy: I’ve been an advocate of an 8 or 16 team playoff for years. My thought on the “BCS National Championship” is if no one outside of the SEC cares is it really a national championship? I mean, really, I could just go out and call myself the greatest sports writer on earth and just because I say it doesn’t make it true, right?
If ever there was a year that screams for a playoff to happen it’s this year. I don’t know how you can justify Alabama as better than Oklahoma State, Stanford, or even two loss teams like Wisconsin and Oregon. I say settle the arguments on the field. Just check out the FCS playoffs and tell me the BCS makes any sense whatsoever.
10. How might the Rose Bowl set Bielema’s squad up for next year? Wilson is gone, Ball might declare for the draft. Is this a senior-laden team that will have to rebuild? The Ducks return a great nucleus next season and have an extremely favorable schedule, and the thinking out here is if they can earn a win in the Granddaddy, it could springboard them to a run at the national title next season. Players aren’t thinking that way, but fans are. What does this game mean for the future of Wisconsin football?
Andy: It will be an interesting offseason that’s for sure. We will lose at least 5 players on offense and will have to break in a QB that has next to no experience, unless we bring in another transfer QB which I don’t see happening. On the other side of the ball we’ll be returning Borland and Taylor, but will lose ½ of our backfield in Henry and Fenelus. So there will be a bit of a reloading but the overall talent level on this team is way ahead of where it was even 4 or 5 years ago and that’s a credit to the coaches and recruiting of Bielema and his staff.
I think your assumption about winning this Rose Bowl and using it as a springboard to a run at the national title is correct. I really think the winner of this game deserves to be in the national discussion from here on out, the trick for Wisconsin is to be in this position for more than a 2 year period as we fell off a bit after back to back Rose Bowls in 1999 and 2000.
bonus question: What are some of your traditions, legends and history, and what do you serve and drink at the tailgate? Are Badger fans 50% Packers and 50% Wisconsin, or are they separate and distinct groups?
Andy: As for traditions, unfortunately you won’t be seeing our greatest stadium tradition which is Jump Around between the 3rd and 4th quarters, but our fans are creative enough so I’m betting you’ll see a “silent Jump Around” like we did last year. Wisconsin is a bit different than Oregon in that we only have one Division 1 football team so if you from here chances are you are both a Packers and Wisconsin fan. Well, unless you are from the western part of the state and then it could be a mix of Packers/Vikings/Wisconsin. One thing is for sure, this state is football mad!
Tailgating is a very serious affair for Wisconsin fans as you may imagine. We love our beer, brats, cheese, and of course more beer. So look for plenty of that around the stadium and don’t be afraid to talk to most of the people wearing Red on Jan. 2nd, we really can be a friendly bunch. Heck, we may even offer you a beer and some brats as well! I hope this has given you a bit of an insight into what’s being talked about here in America’s Dairyland and we look forward to bringing you more information leading up to the game!