Trading places in the Rose Bowl matchup: How the Grinch could steal the Granddaddy

bret[Editor’s note: second in our series with new bloguin website, writer/editor Andrew Coppen has agreed to trade places with The Duck Stops Here. He’s writing the Oregon-will-win piece, and DSH, below, is writing the tale of the abominable and unthinkable, a Wisconsin victory and a third straight Oregon loss in a BCS bowl.]

In the Leaders and Legends Divisions they play eight conference games, so the University of Wisconsin-Madison spent the month of September pummeling the hapless, hopeless dregs of college football. They walloped UNLV 51-17 and thrashed Oregon State. Beavers versus Badgers–it wasn’t a fair fight, reflected by the 35-0 final, five quick, lazer-sharp lacerations to the throat of the punchless, floundering Barkrats, whose star running back Malcolm Agnew couldn’t make the trip. They crushed Northern Illinois 49-7 and dispatched South Dakota 59-10.

For the month they outscored their opponents 194-34. Those were Fielding Yost numbers, Amos Alonzo Stagg dominations, the one-sided glories of football’s distant past Bret Bielema’s juggernaut was 4-0 and ranked 7th in the country. After another decisive win, 48-17 over Nebraska in the joint-is-jumping confines of historic Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers reached 4th. Indiana fell next, again in Camp Randall, 59-7. By now the Badgers had a pair of Heisman Trophy candidates. Though six games Russell Wilson had thrown 14 touchdowns with just one interception while completing over 76% of his passes. Running back Montee Ball already had rambled, scooted and spun for 16 touchdowns and 653 yards. With Alabama yet to play LSU, and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State destined for Bedlam in November, the 6-0 Badgers, Big 10 Champions for the 12th time in 2010, winners of two Heisman Trophies, a Ray Guy Award and two Outland Trophies, looked like they might have a shot at adding a certain crystal football to their trophy case.

Then came two crucial Big Ten road games, at Michigan State and at Ohio State, and twice Wisconsin lost heartbreakers, each on long touchdown passes in the last minute of play. At 6-2 with two devastating conference losses, the defending champions national title hopes were in ruins, and even a trip to the first Big Ten Championship would take enormous resolve and resilience.

And that is exactly what the Badgers displayed. They beat Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois in successive weeks, the last two on the road, to set up a Thanksgiving weekend showdown with Penn State for the Leaders Division crown and the right to meet the Spartans in a rematch.

Behind four tds and 156 yards by Ball, the Badgers won 45-7.

The rematch with MSU was tense. Wisconsin needed a fourth quarter rally and a late stop, but they grabbed the victory and a ticket to the Rose Bowl, 42-39, again with another 4-touchdown effort by their Heisman finalist tailback and three key turnovers by their defense.

The Oregon-Wisconsin matchup will be analyzed to death across the web. It will be described as a matchup of power versus speed, Big Ten determination versus PAC-12 finesse, ball control versus a gimmicky, blur fast pace. Chalktalkers and earpiece wearers will pontificate, bluster and wax statistical. But here’s the truth: these teams are a dead-even match. Both run the football exceedingly well, Oregon 5th and Wisconsin 10th in the country. Both score at Glenn Davis/Doc Blanchard clip, 46.2 to 44.2 points a game. Their offenses are each explosive; their defenses swarm and fly to the football.

The Ducks have a brilliant running back, known for his speed. The Badgers have a similarly bright star carrying the football, known for his power. But the speedy back is surprisingly powerful and the powerful back is surprisingly fast. Their duel from opposite sidelines could be one of the most legendary battles in a legendary game. Elmer Layden won an MVP trophy at the Rose Bowl. Ernie Nevers did. Harry Gilmore of Alabama won 1946. Ron Dayne won two. It’s a history dotted with great days and great players, and on January 2nd, one of these two could have a spectacular, memorable game. Or both of them could, which would be marvelous football.

Both teams have a good quarterback with an impressive winning record. Wilson has been scintillating this year, wonderfully accurate and careful with the football, a threat to run and create even when the defense covers everyone perfectly. He’s the more dangerous and the more mobile of the two, but Oregon’s Darron Thomas is a competitor, a laces-the-wrong way wobbling spiral leader who carved out a record of 22-3 as the Oregon starter. His knee, injured midway through the season against Arizona State, should be better now. Having faced a big stages before, including last year’s National Championship Game in Glendale, Thomas should take this one in stride. He told the writers today that for him, the Rose Bowl was “just another game.” Meaning, just another game he wants to win. He’ll have to match Wilson’s mobility and accuracy for the Ducks to have a chance a week from Monday.

But after the matchups come readiness and desire. Wisconsin will win this game because they have more determination and resilience. Their season was in disarray on Black Saturday, October 29th and they resurrected it with character and a refusal to quit. They kept believing. Trailing in the fourth quarter to the Spartans in the league championship, they sucked it up, rallied, responding to the pressure.

Oregon doesn’t have a win like that this year.  They dominated a weak, down conference, winning by controlling the tempo, overwhelming their opponents with pace. In their two tests against physical, athletically gifted teams this season, LSU and USC, they failed twice.

In a bowl game, the Ducks don’t own all their usual, familiar advantages. They can’t wear out a physical ball control team of Wisconsin’s caliber. Bret Bielema’s team is disciplined, and they can score with multiple weapons, proving in Indianapolis they could win a shootout if necessary.

Because both teams are equally talented a bowl game like this comes down to three things: preparation, discipline and desire. Who wants to be there more. The Badgers are more tested. They know what this game is worth, and remember how it was lost. Safety Aaron Henry told Louis Blen of, speaking of the 2010 Rose Bowl trip,

    “Some guys had never left the state of Wisconsin, let alone going out to L.A., a beautiful venue like that,” Henry said. “We were staying in Beverly Hills, walking amongst the stars, literally. … It was a great opportunity. But I think now going out there, guys have a grasp on what to expect. . . . I think guys can truly focus on the football game now.”

If this game is close going late into the fourth quarter, Wisconsin is on familiar ground. They lost last year’s Rose Bowl on a missed two point conversion late in the game. They lost to Michigan the first time on a Hail Mary on the last play of the game. They won’t lose again. They are the team with the edge in character. The spoiled, opulent locker room the Ducks call home breeds entitlement. They’re not prepared for a 12-round fight. The Badgers have survived a season of them.