The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s impressive run aside, a sizable number of streaks have ended recently. The Detroit Lions’ road losing streak. Brett Favre’s consecutive starts streak. Survivor’s streak of entertaining seasons. (Guess CBS should sign Russell Hantz up to a long-term contract.)
One streak in danger of coming to an end this New Year’s Day is the Wisconsin Badgers’ run of not losing at the Rose Bowl.
Hey, maybe it’s not as impressive as Grandpa Favre starting in 297 consecutive NFL games, but you’d have to go back to 1963 to find a Rose Bowl game that the Wisconsin Badgers went to and lost.
When they take on the undefeated TCU Horned Frogs on New Year’s Day, can the 11-1 Badgers make it four Rose Bowl victories in a row?
Let’s take a look at the matchups:
Wisconsin’s run offense vs. TCU’s run defense. This is the marquee matchup of the game. While Wisconsin has been running all over its opponents this year, to the tune of 247 yards per game, TCU’s defense has been treating opposing rushers like Betty White in a Snickers commercial, allowing just 89 yards per game on the ground. And before you say that TCU hasn’t faced a rushing attack as good as Wisconsin’s, they actually have. In October, TCU took on Air Force’s third-ranked rushing offense and did OK, holding them to 184 yards, or about 133 yards below their season average.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin finished the year 12th in rushing offense, but Montee Ball and James White got better each week as they led the Badgers to three straight games of over 300 yards on the ground to end the regular season. On the flip side, Wisconsin has faced a rush defense almost as good as TCU’s in Ohio State—the Buckeyes allowed about 94 yards on the ground per game this season, and the Badgers doubled that at 184.
With John Clay reportedly healthy, and White and Ball running ridiculously well behind the Badgers’ massive offensive line, Bielema’s three-headed monster should be enough to scare TCU’s run defense into mediocrity. Don’t look for the Badgers to break 300 yards on the ground again, but 200 isn’t out of the question. Which would be a victory for Wisconsin. Advantage: Badgers.
TCU’s run offense vs. Wisconsin’s run defense. Wisconsin’s rush defense fell off sharply from last year but was far from laughable, allowing about 132 yards per game. More imporantly, they held the best rushing offenses they faced—Michigan and Ohio State—well below their season averages. However, TCU runs the ball better than Michigan or Ohio State, or, surprisingly enough, even Wisconsin.
But as the Badgers’ run game improved as the year continued, TCU’s rush offense, led by sophomore Ed Wesley, regressed. Wesley should be easier for Wisconsin to defend then their own threesome, but it’s not difficult to imagine that he comes back from the month-long break refreshed enough to give the Badgers’ defense fits. Advantage: Horned Frogs.
Wisconsin’s pass offense vs. TCU’s pass defense. As good as Scott Tolzien has been this season—and he’s been superb, completing nearly 75 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns and only six interceptions—he’s been successful largely because of the dominance of his ground game and the tendency of opposing defenses to overcommit to stopping the run (a commitment that usually fails).
If TCU can resist most opponents’ habit of overplaying the run, the Horned Frogs, who lead the country in pass defense, should be able to limit Tolzien. The good news for Wisconsin is that they don’t ask Tolzien to do too much. The bad news is in this game he might not be able to even do that. Advantage (slight): Horned Frogs.
TCU’s pass offense vs. Wisconsin’s pass defense. TCU’s Andy Dalton has a more eye-popping resume than Scott Tolzien: He has the most wins (41) of any current starting player in college football, and whereas Tolzien threw for 16 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2010, Dalton tossed for a whopping 26 touchdowns with only six interceptions. However, Wisconsin’s pass defense has been opportunistic of late, and players like DE J.J. Watt, and CB Antonio Fenelus are better than what Dalton sees in the Mountain West Conference. Even so, it’s hard to argue with a player who has had as much continuous success as Dalton. Advantage: Horned Frogs.
Special teams. Wisconsin’s kick returner David Gilreath, with his opening kickoff return for a touchdown against Ohio State, and Badger punter Brad Nortman, with his fake punt against Iowa, are special teams players responsible for two of the biggest plays in a Badgers season full of big plays. But they’ve been solid all season: Gilreath has been averaging 25.7 yards per kickoff return while Nortman (although he hasn’t been punting that much) averages 42.8 yards per punt. Kicker Philip Welch has been perfect this season on extra points and has converted on 15 of 19 field goal attempts.
TCU is no slouch in this area either, as their main return man, wide receiver Jeremy Kerley, has been named the Mountain West Conference Special Teams Player of the Year for the last two seasons. Anyone who watched the Arizona State game early in the season knows that kick coverage can present problems for Wisconsin, so Kerley could have a big game here. But Gilreath is still the bigger threat. Advantage: Badgers.
Intangibles. As the only undefeated team not to be in the BCS Championship Game, TCU is playing to prove to the college football world that they belonged in that game. But TCU’s presence in the Rose Bowl should elevate Wisconsin’s game as well, with Bret Bielema using TCU’s undefeated status to sell the game to his players as a secondary “championship game.”
While it’s tough to look at TCU’s body of work this year and find many holes, it does simply come back to the level of competition that they’ve faced, not to mention that in the next-to-last game of the season they almost got beat by San Diego State at home. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has been breathtakingly good playing bigger programs in a tougher conference. Yes, the RPI rankings say that TCU faced a tougher schedule than the Badgers, but that seems to be largely a function of Wisconsin’s soft non-conference schedule (Austin Peay?). Advantage: Badgers.
Coaching. TCU’s Gary Patterson is one of the most respected coaches in college football, having earned an astounding seven coaching awards after the 2009 season, including the AP Coach of the Year award and the Eddie Robinson Award. More importantly, his teams win: His 97-28 record amassed during ten years at TCU is outstanding. While Bielema’s numbers aren’t quite as gaudy, they are nothing to laugh at either: 49-15 over five seasons at Wisconsin. Bielema has also shown an impressive maturation over the last couple of seasons, as the sideline meltdown of 2008 seems like something out of the distant past.
He has the Badgers playing at the highest level they’ve played at for years, if ever, and although he’s gotten some heat for running up the score (A 2-point conversion against the lowly Gophers? Really?), he’s shown great and gutsy decision-making when things get tight, most obviously the fake punt call against Iowa. Again, this largely comes down to level of competition, but Advantage: Badgers.
Final score prediction: In one of the most anticipated Rose Bowl matchups in years, this one won’t disappoint. TCU will prove that it belongs, but Wisconsin will prove that it’s the more battle-tested, skilled team. In one for the ages, Wisconsin 35, TCU 31.