Fan Interference: Can Alvarez do it again?

C3K sports blogger previews Barry's return to the sidelines
Fan Interference: Can Alvarez do it again?

What a difference a month makes.

Get in your way-back machine for a second and travel back with me to late November 2012.

We thought “Blair” from “The Facts of Life” had a good chance to win “Survivor.” We weren’t tired of Christmas music yet. And we were blissfully unaware of what was to take place in Newtown, Conn.

And we certainly didn’t think the Wisconsin Badgers football team, who were prepping for their unlikely appearance in the Big Ten Championship despite having lost three of their previous four games, would be playing on January 1, 2013.

In the Rose Bowl.

Coached by Barry Alvarez.

By all accounts, the Badgers had a bizarre season. The #12 ranking bestowed upon them in both the AP and Coaches’ preseason polls underscored the high hopes most had for the team. Hopes that were quickly dashed after unimpressive, too-close-for-comfort nonconference home wins over the likes of Northern Iowa, Utah State, and UTEP.

Meanwhile, a week 2 anemic loss to Oregon State in which Wisconsin gained just 207 total yards and scored seven points led to the surprising firing of first-year offensive line coach Mike Markuson.

A coaching shakeup then led to a quarterback shakeup as the ineffective Danny O’Brien, who, in terms of athletic ability, seemed to more closely rival funnyman Nipsey Russell than last year’s QB Russell Wilson, was benched for freshman Joel Stave.

But surprisingly, both major changes seemed to work, as Wisconsin won four of its first six Big Ten games. However, three overtime losses to Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State seemed to cement that this year’s team just couldn’t hang with the big boys of college football.

Then December hit and the bizarre became the unthinkable. A completely dominating 70-31 thrashing of Nebraska in the conference title game which earned the Badgers their third straight Rose Bowl berth. The defection of head coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas. Barry Alvarez’s announcement that he would coach the team on January 1.

The only way the Badgers’ season could have gotten stranger is if Alvarez would have hired his predecessor Don Morton to replace Bielema. Or this guy.

But with the widely-applauded hiring of Utah State coach Gary Andersen, who, like Bielema and Alvarez before him, has a strong defensive background, things seem to seem to be making sense again in Madison.

But does it make sense that Wisconsin, unranked a month ago, could upset the No. 8-ranked Stanford Cardinal?

Let’s look at the biggest Rose Bowl storylines:

1. Can Barry do it again? Although Alvarez is beloved in Wisconsin for many reasons, perhaps his crowning achievement is his unblemished 3-0 Rose Bowl record while with the Badgers. (Though only 5-3 in other bowls, they don’t call the Rose Bowl “The Granddaddy of Them All” only because it’s the oldest bowl game.) In contrast, Bret Bielema was 0-2 in Rose Bowl games while at Wisconsin and 2-4 in bowl games here overall. No matter what happens on January 1, Alvarez will remain legendary in the Badger State, but he is undoubtedly putting his sterling coaching reputation on the line by agreeing to this assignment.

2. Montee Ball vs. the Stanford run defense. Though he broke the NCAA record for total touchdowns this season, it was if anything a slightly disappointing season for Wisconsin’s best offensive player. Not that he wasn’t spectacular – he won the Doak Walker Award for the nation’s top running back and finished fourth in the nation in rushing yards – but his August and September were marred by an offseason attack, an underperforming offensive line, and inept quarterback play. By the time Ball – and the team – got its mojo going, it was October. Now Ball will face his biggest challenge yet of this demanding season as he faces off against Stanford’s stout run defense, ranked third in the nation. The good news for Ball and the Badgers is that Stanford’s run defense isn’t without flaw: They just allowed 284 rushing yards against UCLA in the Pac-12 title game. It will be tough for Ball to match the 200 yards Ron Dayne gained the last time Wisconsin and Stanford met in the Rose Bowl, but it’s safe to say that if Ball can’t get his, the Badgers won’t get that Rose Bowl trophy.

3. Curt Phillips vs. the Stanford pass rush. Somewhat overlooked in the craziness of the last month has been the underwhelming play of quarterback Curt Phillips. The senior has been OK, but he hasn’t been asked to do very much: In the two wins that he’s started, Phillips has only thrown the ball a combined 15 times, a remarkable stat considering that the Badgers scored a staggering 132 points in those two contests. Should the Stanford defense succeed in putting more onus on Phillips, the Cardinal pass rush – which leads the nation in sacks with 56, should be able to rattle him. What the big unknown is how much rattling it will take for Alvarez to go to freshman Joel Stave, who could be available to play for the first time since suffering a broken left collarbone on October 27.

4. Our chip vs. their chip. Everybody in Madison knows the extra motivation the Badgers have in trying to win without Bret Bielema at the helm. But do they know that Stanford also has a ghost from their recent past they would like to exorcise? “Part of that chip on our shoulder was to prove that we’re not a one-man organization here,” said Stanford’s coach David Shaw on the team’s drive to succeed in its first season after the graduation of QB Andrew Luck. Shaw’s team has obviously proven it can hang without the Heisman winner, but it would like to seal the deal by winning on January 1.

5. We play defense too. Much has been made of Stanford’s 14th-ranked defense, as the Cardinal hold their opponents to under 18 points and 338 yards per game. But Wisconsin’s is none too shabby, either, keeping its opponents to under twenty points and 320 yards per game. And both teams did their work against quality opponents: The Cardinal had the 11th-toughest schedule in the nation; the Badgers had the 25th toughest.

6. Chris Borland and Terrence Stephens. Anybody who wondered about the importance of linebacker Chris Borland to Wisconsin’s defense need wonder no more: After missing both the Ohio State and Penn State losses with a hamstring injury, Borland came roaring back in the conference title game, earning a season-high 13 tackles. His presence will be key on New Year’s Day. On the flip side, Stanford defensive lineman Terrence Stephens has been ruled ineligible for the Rose Bowl due to a NCAA rules violation related to rental housing. Stephens has also been out the previous two games of the season, and his absence has noticeably weakened the Cardinal run defense.

Final prediction: Though the game takes place on the first day of the year, it would be hard for 2013 to produce a better feel-good story than Barry Alvarez earning his fourth Rose Bowl victory as coach of the Wisconsin Badgers. It’s just tough to believe this story will actually come to that storybook conclusion. While the Badgers’ run game and defense will keep things close, ultimately Stanford is just the more balanced, more tested, more better team. Stanford 24, Wisconsin 14.