Rose Bowl Preview: Wisconsin-Oregon

The BCS games start today in the late afternoon and it kicks off with Wisconsin-Oregon in the Rose Bowl (5 PM ET, ABC) as Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit will be on hand to get us started on college football’s showcase games. Let’s look back on the path each team took to get here, and then see how they match up…

Wisconsin (10-2, won Big Ten Championship Game): The Badgers came into the season with high expectations after signing transfer Russell Wilson to play quarterback. I can’t ever recall a summer transfer being this hyped, but there were a lot of unique circumstances. Because Wilson had been released by N.C. State after completing his undergraduate work and playing minor league baseball, he was eligible to play immediately. He was stepping into a team that had gone to the Rose Bowl the previous year, had almost everybody back, but had a glaring weakness at quarterback. Put that into the summer news vacuum, and you’ve got the hype machine in full gear.

Wilson proved to be worthy of all of it. Wisconsin won their four tuneup non-conference games. No one will ever accuse them of ambitious scheduling and wins over UNLV, Oregon State and South Dakota went along with a win over eventual MAC champ Northern Illinois. The running game with Montee Ball was wasn’t really rolling at this point and Wilson completing better than 75 percent of his passes with only one interception was the highlight. We should also take note that NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish is similar in style to Oregon’s Darron Thomas and the Badger defense had little trouble with Harnish. There’s obviously a huge speed difference between Harnish and Thomas, so I’m not suggesting that this automatically translates into success today. What I am suggesting is that there’s no negative evidence against the UW defense to be taken from this game.

The same couldn’t be said for the Wisconsin run defense. UNLV gashed them on opening night for 146 yards and that would prove to be a problem in otherwise impressive wins to open the Big Ten schedule. The Badgers hammered Nebraska 48-17 in a Welcome To The Big Ten game for the Cornhuskers against a national audience, and then blasted Indiana. But Nebraska was able to run the ball and had it not been for Taylor Martinez throwing three interceptions that dug his team an early third quarter hole, that game might have been different. The alarm bells went off further against Indiana, when Stephen Houston piled up 135 yards on the ground.

Wisconsin’s defensive concerns came up and bit them in epic back-to-back losses against Michigan State and Ohio State, both on long touchdown passes the closing seconds. The Michigan State game was settled on a Hail Mary toss that’s been one of college football’s most repeated highlights of 2011, while Ohio State’s Braxton Miller threw a late score in a 33-29 win. The UW rush defense gave up an average of 243 yards on the ground and each game was marred by a blocked punt and poor kick coverage at key moments. As a Wisconsin fan, I’m one of the few that doesn’t think “Our only two losses came on the last play. “ I think “Why don’t we hire a bleepin’ special teams coach?” (Seriously, Wisconsin doesn’t have one. Bret Bielama handles it himself).

With their conference title hopes hanging by a thread, Wisconsin ripped off wins over Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois, as the offense became more about Montee Ball’s rushing than Wilson’s passing. Both were good and the change was subtle, but for those of us who watched each game and then if you review the box scores, the change is obvious. Ball had started the late-season push that would get him to the Heisman ceremony. During this stretch, the scandal at Penn State broke, an unfocused Lion team lost a game to Nebraska and it opened the door to create a head-to-head battle in Madison for the division title in the Thanksgiving weekend finale.

I had the good fortune to be in attendance at Camp Randall on that rainy Saturday afternoon and it was no contest. Against a good defense, Ball rushed for 156 yards and turnovers helped Wisconsin pull away to a 45-7 win. It moved them into the conference championship game at Indianapolis against Michigan State. This one was a classic, as good as the first game. The offenses were dominant, every notable skill player had a good game and Wisconsin ultimately pulled it out 42-39.

Oregon (10-2, won Pac-12 Championship Game): Oregon started the season with even higher expectations, ranking in the Top 5 after losing last year’s national championship game to Auburn on a last-play field goal. The Ducks opened the season with a road-neutral game against LSU in Dallas, the most hyped game of Labor Day weekend. Turnovers killed Oregon, as they lost three fumbles in a 40-27 final, a game in which Thomas was not able to get the ball to his receivers in the passing game. But short of playing the Alabama defense or the San Francisco 49ers defense, it was only going to get easier for Oregon’s offense, with Thomas and elite running back LaMichael James.

Over the next four games, Oregon’s offense was hitting on all cylinders, as they closed out non-conference play with an impressive 69-20 win over bowl-bound Nevada, hammered Missouri State and then took out Arizona and Cal to open Pac-12 play. Oregon scored 224 points in these four games and in the two Pac-12 matchups James rushed for a total of 527 yards. Like Wisconsin, the defense was a cause for concern. Nevada running back Mike Ball had a 99-yard game, Arizona quarterback Nick Foles lit them up for 398 yards passing and didn’t throw a single interception. Cal’s back Isi Sofele had 119 yards.

The first key test in league play was Arizona State. At the time, the Sun Devils were playing good football, were seen as the probable Pac-12 South champs and had a legitimate dark-horse chance to be in the Rose Bowl. Oregon beat them 41-27 even without James in the lineup as backup Kenjon Barner rolled for 171 yards.

Oregon kept rolling right along with wins over Colorado, Washington State and Washington, and the offense showing no signs of letup, averaging 40-plus points a game even with James missing two more games and Thomas being out against Colorado.

Now the stage was set for their big battles against Stanford and USC, both in a Saturday night prime-time showcase. In the first game at Palo Alto, Oregon likely ended Andrew Luck’s Heisman campaign, as they intercepted him twice, recovered three fumbles and rolled to a 53-30 win, a victory as impressive as anyone in the country had all season. The Ducks were in control of the Pac-12 North and appeared to have the inside track to a spot in the BCS National Championship Game. Defensive problems caught up to them, as Matt Barkley threw for 323 yards and USC stole a 38-35 win in Eugene.

The Ducks wrapped the season up with a win over Oregon State that secured the division and then an anti-climactic win over UCLA in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game. The threefold combination of USC’s probation preventing a rematch, Pac-12 rules giving Oregon homefield edge and UCLA firing Rick Neuheisel the week of the game all made the Ducks’ win seem inevitable and they did win easily 49-31.

The Matchup: It doesn’t require deep analysis to look at how these teams played and say that offense should rule the roost in the Rose Bowl. Las Vegas agrees and the Over/Under for this game is 72 (most of these lines are in the 40s or 50s). In a lot of cases, I tend to go with the Under in big games, because defenses are often underrated, as was the case in last year’s national title game, a 22-19 final when the O/U was in the 70s. But this isn’t one of those spots. The defensive deficiencies of both teams are real, and their offensive firepower is completely legitimate. Playing tight is the only thing that will keep this game lower-scoring, and it will take a minimum of 42 points to win.

Oregon’s strength is that Wisconsin’s problems with the run mean the Ducks don’t have to shy from coming straight at the Badgers with James. In Wisconsin’s case, Oregon’s vulnerability in pass coverage indicates that UW might want to shift back to their early-season emphasis on Wilson throwing the ball. Arizona, Cal, Washington state, Stanford, USC and Oregon State all threw for 250-plus yards and Wilson is a high-percentage thrower who avoids mistakes and creates problems outside the pocket. Another area to keep an eye on is penalties—Oregon had three games this year, including the Pac-12 title game, where they drew double-digit flags. In a close game, hidden yardage can add up. On the reverse side, the Ducks can get their intangibles through kick returns and I would expect to see them try for a blocked punt more than once.

Being in Wisconsin over Christmas and New Year’s the question I’ve gotten is “Does Wisconsin have any chance?” The good people of the Badger State aren’t optimistic about this game. But I am. Biased though I may be, take the Badgers, a 5.5 point underdog as of this morning, to win a 48-45 shootout.

Please note will be doing a live blog during the Rose and Fiesta Bowls today, along with the Sugar and Orange Bowls the next two nights. Stop by during the game to get reaction as the games unfold.