Call him Samson: DL Ben Gardner
Before either team has started practicing, Wisconsin and Stanford's rematch in the Rose Bowl has already generated plenty of intrigue. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema abruptly departed for the Arkansas vacancy on Tuesday, leaving a void at the helm of a Badgers' machine that was firing on full cylinders in its 70-31 Big Ten Championship drubbing of Nebraska.
Bielema himself announced he won't be coaching Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Current Pitt head coach Paul Chryst, the Badgers' offensive coordinator until this year, is rumored to be the leading candidate to replace him. In the meantime, though, there is word circulating that former Wisconsin coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez may take the reins for the Rose Bowl. He has scheduled a press conference for 8 a.m. Thursday, presumably to explain the short-term coaching
The thought of Alvarez manning the ship against Stanford only adds to the storyline. Stanford fans already view this Rose Bowl as an opportunity for vengeance following Wisconsin's 17-9 Pasadena win. Alvarez was the Badgers' coach opposite Ty Willingham in that game. He stepped down from his position after the 2005 season, hand-picking Bielema as his successor. Alvarez maintains immense popularity in the Wisconsin community after going 3-0 in Rose Bowls at Madison, so he has the potential to rally the team behind him if he does indeed take control for the January 1 showdown.
On the Home Front: Rest
Stanford, meanwhile, is physically recharging after its rugged seven-win tear to conclude the pre-bowl season. Except for a pair of conditioning runs, the Farm Boys have this week off to prepare for next week's final exams. Full-on practice is expected to resume by the week of December 17. Physical rest, though, is a priority leading up to a match-up against a rugged Wisconsin team that threw the ball only eight times against Nebraska while accumulating 539 rushing yards.
"It's going to be a bloodbath," Ben Gardner said. "It's going to be a physical game up front. We're going to show we can play physical in the Pac-12."
Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor is certainly licking his wounds following a 340-touch regular season that obliterated his 2011 mark of 267 carries. He'll be running against a solid Badger run defense that limits opponents to 3.7 yards per carry.
Along those lines, Stanford must feature tighter ground control than its 2000 Rose Bowl squad displayed against Wisconsin, when Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne rumbled to a 200-yard output. This year's Cardinal team is ranked second behind Alabama nationally in rushing defense. Derek Mason's unit is surrendering 86 ground yards per game, though UCLA gashed the Cardinal and White for 286 yards in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Now, fellow Doak Walker award finalist Montee Ball will try to emulate Jonathan Franklin’s successful effort in Franklin's home stadium.
The Cardinal will have the rare opportunity to face all three Doak Walker award finalists in the same season. Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey rushed for 132 yards against them, while Franklin struggled in his first try versus Stanford before ripping off 196 yards in the title game. The Farm Boys will hope that Wisconsin's lack of a true passing threat (only six national teams have passed less) prevents the Badgers from duplicating similar schematic advantages.
A potential boon for Stanford: the Rose Bowl will be played during Winter Break, meaning players will not have to juggle difficult academic demands with football during lead-up to the game.
In a perplexing vote, Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert, and not Stanford's Zach Ertz, received the John Mackey Award, given annually to the nation's most outstanding tight end. No. 86 had amassed 66 catches and 837 receiving yards, both school records, on top of his six touchdowns, all numbers that bested Eifert's 44-catch, 624-yard, four-touchdown output. Ertz also recorded game-tying or game-winning touchdowns against three top-15 teams, including then-No. 1 Oregon and then-No. 2 USC.
The two tight ends are considered equally adept blockers, so Eifert certainly doesn't have a large enough edge in that respect to discount Ertz's 22-catch, 213-yard statistical advantage. Rest assured, though: In a much more reasonable decision, CBS Sports named Ertz the lone first team tight end on its All-America team.
Stanford's coaches are spending a large portion of the bowl practice season on the recruiting trail, working to lock down the Cardinal's 2013 class. There will be a one-month gap between the Rose Bowl game and National Signing Day on February 1, but the program is also using its third straight BCS appearance as a selling point.
"It helps to put on the Stanford jacket with the little Rose Bowl pin," Shaw said.
Cardinal coaches can also tout their program's position as the kings of California on the recruiting trail. With the championship victory over UCLA, Stanford has still not lost to an in-state opponent since the 2009 Big Game, good for a 13-game winning streak.
Shaw said that Stanford punter Daniel Zychlinski will likely play in the Rose Bowl. He was hurt after UCLA's Anthony Barr drilled him on a low snap in the regular season finale. Ben Rhyne performed well in Zychlinski's place, particularly on holds of two successful Jordan Williamson field goals in wet conditions.
Shaw has previously stated that wide receiver Ty Montgomery, who injured his leg October 6 against Arizona, would not be 100 percent until Stanford's bowl game -- though he has been seeing limited action. The Cardinal clinching a January BCS game gives the sophomore as much time as possible to make it back to full strength.
Meanwhile, Stanford has not provided an update on the playing status of nose tackle Terrence Stephens, who missed both UCLA games because of a personal issue.
Shaw said that "he's running out of words" to describe Andrew Luck's success in Indianapolis following the Colts' spectacular late two-possession comeback at Detroit. He described an ecstatic Luck calling the Stanford football offices the morning after the Cardinal's Pac-12 Championship victory.
"He was so excited," Shaw said. "You'd think he was still playing."
Stanford's staff hopes that Luck won't be able to attend the Rose Bowl, though. They're crossing their fingers for an Indianapolis playoff berth instead.
After quickly selling out its 31,000-set Rose Bowl allotment, Stanford has now sold 35,000 tickets and counting for the big game. That number doesn't include purchases through third-party sellers like StubHub. Associate athletic director Earl Koberlein said that Stanford’s number of available tickets is a "fluid situation." The school is confident it'll be able to accommodate any and all demand for seats in Pasadena.
The Mullet and Fiesta Bowl Redemption
Ben Gardner announced he wouldn't cut his long hair until immediately after the January 1 Rose Bowl. Judging from his sullen glare toward the defensive end during Sunday's press conference, Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov would like the hairdo to stay longer than that. Many Cardinal players were upset Gardner cut his hair before last season's Fiesta Bowl, a game which didn't end up going the team's way.
The sting of that 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State is still motivating Stanford's players, by the way.
"We're looking forward to getting redemption at the Rose Bowl," Ertz said.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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