I admit it. I've been avoiding it.
For the last two weeks, I've done all I can to avoid everything about the Rose Bowl. This became more difficult when I returned to Wisconsin for the holidays. I had to learn to avert my eyes while walking through the Wal-Mart, lest I spend too long pondering the collection of Bucky the Badger Rose Bowl merchandise. I didn't read the morning delivery of the paper, for fear of being exposed to Wisconsin coverage. I even pretended not to notice that the preferred brand of ice cream in this house is none other than "Badger Tracks."
Nope, no Rose Bowl coverage for me.
Now, I know some of you may think all of the above is, well, a little bit crazy. And I'm sure some of you (*cough*Nebraskafans*cough*) are more than a little jealous that I have this little problem to deal with in the first place. Of course, I should stress, it's not as though I'm avoiding ALL bowl coverage - no I've been gorging myself on the buffet of early bowl games pretty much every single day. But no Rose Bowl.
But why, you ask. Why, Hilary, have you been trying not to think about the fact that your team is going to the Grandaddy of ‘em All tomorrow?
Well..... you see.... The thing is...
I'm a little bit worried.
We came so close that first time. Against TCU. Just one stupid play call away from a bowl victory. But it was okay, because the next year we had Russell Wilson and it looked like maybe that would be enough to carry us even against the terrifying power of the Oregon offense.
But, hey, I even got over that loss because the combination of the suspensions of OSU and PSU made it likely that the Badgers would be only one B1G CCG victory away from a third go at the Rose.
And, of course, that worked out. We smashed Nebraska (I thought of using "embarrassed" instead, but I didn't want to salt the wound too much), and earned another trip to the best of the BCS bowls. In my beer and nacho fueled haze that night, all seemed good. It didn't really hit me until a few days later...
This is probably it. For a while.
Wisconsin has gone out and, even after a disappointing season, earned a third chance. But, if the worst should happen, if the offensive line can't continue their resurgence, if Barry Alvarez can't resurrect that old magic, and we lose... when will we see the Rose Bowl again? I'm an optimist, but I look at a rebuilding Ohio State, and a Penn State that won't be down for long, and I see a division that's no longer ours for the taking. And while we managed two consecutive B1G CCG victories, it will always be a hurdle even if we somehow do capture the division again. It's quite possible that it will be a long time before Bucky sees Pasadena again.
So, the question remains. Can the Badgers do it? Can they take down Stanford?
I want to say, yes, I do. I want to say that the rankings don't really matter. That the Badgers can recreate their performance against Nebraska and stomp all over the Cardinal.
But to say that, I'd have to ignore the fact that Stanford and Nebraska have dramatically different run defenses. Nebraska's overall defense is ranked 56th. Stanford, meanwhile, has the 13th best in the country, allowing just 17.5 points / game. It's sort of like the difference between a corn field and a brick wall. Even though the Badgers have the 12th best rushing offense in the country, I'm not necessarily convinced that they'll tear up the turf against Stanford.
It's not all bad, of course. The Badgers do have a good defense themselves - ranked 19th overall this season. Since they lost to Nebraska in week five, the Badgers have allowed just over 18.3 points per game in their last eight games, while scoring an average of 35. More importantly, during that eight game span, Wisconsin lost just five turnovers total, while taking away twelve, for a margin of +7. This is in line with the Badgers overall performance over the last three seasons, in which they've lost a total of just 31 turnovers, the lowest rate in the country, even better than Alabama. Wisconsin's margin in that span is +33.
On the Stanford side, over their last eight games, they gave up an average of 14.5 points per game, while scoring an average of 35. During that span, Stanford turned the ball over twelve times, while taking it away fifteen times, a margin of +3.
Along the whole mistake vein, Wisconsin also has the fact that they are one of the least penalized teams in the country going for them. They draw flags an average of just 3.8 times per game. Stanford's average over this season is 5.7 flags per game.
Of course, I can't fail to mention that Wisconsin does have some potent weapons in Montee Ball and his backups James White and Melvin Gordon. And Curt Phillips has done an able job at quarterback lately -- which basically means hand the ball off, throw the ball a couple times a quarter, and don't commit any costly errors. But, the Badgers are evenly matched by the weapons that Stanford will deploy in outstanding back Stepfan Taylor and pleasant surprise Kevin Hogan. I consider the offenses for the Badgers and the Cardinal to basically be a push. That's why it may come down to elements such as turnovers and penalties.
These are small differences, to be sure. But while I'm not certain about the outcome of this game, I am absolutely convinced that it will be close, no matter which team emerges the victor. And it's possible, just maybe, that the upper hand that the Badgers have on turnovers and penalties will prove the key difference late in a close game.