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Wisconsin Football: Let's Not Forget About the Badgers and the Rose Bowl

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Wisconsin Football: Let's Not Forget About the Badgers and the Rose Bowl
Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
LOOK OUT HE'S GOT AN AXE EVERYONE RUN FOR YOUR LIVES

It hasn't been projected by any serious prognosticator since about Week 2 or so, but it just might be time to revisit an old notion: Wisconsin going to the Rose Bowl.

It's familiar territory for the Badgers, as they've been Pasadena-bound for the last two seasons and they've got to be desperate to come away with a win there before the window of prosperity closes. And let's be honest, during the non-conference portion of the season, that window looked pretty well closed.

Don't look now, though, but Wisconsin's offense is back in a groove, and that could easily mean a third trip back to Pasadena—the first time a Big Ten team has gone to a Rose Bowl in three straight years since Michigan did so from 1977-79.

First of all, let's get one thing out of the way right off the bat: Wisconsin is going to the Big Ten Championship this year. Take a look at the Leaders Division standings after Week 8's action.

Standings from ESPN.com

That is an absolute horror show of ineptitude and ineligibility. And then also Wisconsin.

The Badgers' schedule gets tougher down the stretch, as games against Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State all loom, but there's also a trip to Indiana. Assuming Wisconsin wins even one of these games (and 2-2 should be the baseline of expectations here), a 4-4 record is almost assuredly going to be enough to outpace the other three postseason-eligible teams in the conference.

Then there's the question of who Wisconsin would face in the Big Ten Championship, and there it also sets up well for the Badgers. The two likely candidates for the Legends Division berth are Michigan and Nebraska, and we'll know more about who the Legends Division favorite is after those two teams square off at 8:00 PM on Saturday.

Regardless of who wins, though, Wisconsin has a realistic shot to win, because there's a simple fact about both teams: If you have an offensive line, you can run on them both.

Wisconsin and Michigan haven't played since 2010, back in the long-long-ago when Greg Robinson was the "defensive coordinator" (that's what he was called, but nobody knows what he was actually doing), so there's no instructive film there between the two teams; but hang on, did someone say Michigan vs. a power running game?

That's Alabama absolutely obliterating Michigan's front seven and making freshman T.J. Yeldon look like a Heisman favorite back in Week 1. Yes, Michigan's rush defense has improved since then, but the level of competition has also decreased considerably. The way Wisconsin's running the ball as of late, it's closer to Alabama than it is to, say, Purdue.

And let's talk about the resurgence of that Wisconsin rushing attack. This is every bit about the Wisconsin offensive line finally gelling and getting on the same page, and the proof of that isn't just in Montee Ball's sudden increase in productivity—it's in James White's as well.

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

White was the Big Ten Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2010, and for good reason: He rushed for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns on only 156 rushes, a 6.7 yards-per-carry average. That's a stellar average, and it was the best of anyone in that loaded 2010 backfield—even Montee Ball.

But White dipped to just 713 yards and six scores with 141 rushes last year, and while most tailbacks would be fine with averaging roughly 5.1 yards per carry, that's still a significant drop-off and a worrying sign that the Badgers' power attack wasn't the right place for White to show off his skills. That concern only intensified over the first five weeks of this season, as White rushed only 31 times for 129 yards and one score.

Fortunately, right when that offensive line started clicking, White started getting loose, and he's emerging as the second rushing threat Wisconsin really needs to keep its backfield's legs fresh for four quarters. In his last three games, White has 37 rushes for 341 yards and four touchdowns—plus a scintillating catch-and-run against Illinois that he broke for a 62-yard score (at 1:26 in the upcoming video). 

And yes, as the video explains from there, Montee Ball got loose in the second half of that game, and he hasn't looked back since. We mentioned White's stats from the last three games, and they're fine, but how about this from Ball in the same time frame? Seventy-two rushes, 529 yards and seven touchdowns. That's two guys combining for 870 yards rushing in three games—and they're in the same backfield.

So if this keeps up through December and beyond, whoever the Big Ten finds to face Wisconsin in the championship game is going to be in trouble. Wisconsin isn't the invincible super-juggernaut it was over the last two seasons, but it doesn't need to be to get back to the Rose Bowl. It just needs to be better than whoever else it faces in Indianapolis, and that is wholly plausible.

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