Rose Bowl 2020: Oregon vs. Wisconsin Will Be a Tale of Two Excellent Defenses

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 23, 2019

Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor
Wisconsin RB Jonathan TaylorNati Harnik/Associated Press

Every January for more than a century, Pasadena, California, has hosted the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl, pitting two of the best college football teams against one another. It is one of the greatest annual traditions in any sport, and this year it'll be Pac-12 champion Oregon (11-2) and Big Ten runner-up Wisconsin (10-3) battling for the Leishman Trophy.

Each program has won three Rose Bowls, including a head-to-head game eight years ago that ended up being the highest-scoring contest in the Rose Bowl's then-98-game history. (That record was later broken by USC and Penn State in 2017, and then broken again the following year by Georgia and Oklahoma.)

When these teams last met in that January 2012 classic, three players had at least 100 receiving yards and a touchdown. Three other players had at least 150 rushing yards and a touchdown, including Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas, who gained 155 yards on his only two carries of the afternoon.

The Ducks and Badgers were tied at seven, 14, 21 and 28, and both teams racked up more than 500 yards from scrimmage before Oregon eked out a 45-38 victory.

Don't count on a repeat of that shootout, though, because defense was the driving force behind each of these teams reaching The Granddaddy of Them All.

Wisconsin LB Zack Baun
Wisconsin LB Zack BaunStacy Revere/Getty Images

Both the Ducks (15.7) and the Badgers (16.1) rank top-10 nationally in points allowed per game. Wisconsin pitched four shutouts in the first six games of the season. While that was happening, Oregon had a five-game streak in which it only allowed one touchdown.

By mid-October, it felt plausible that these teams could meet in a national championship that played out like the memorable 9-6 overtime war in the trenches between LSU and Alabama in 2011.

Neither defense was anywhere near as impenetrable over the latter half of the season, resulting in disappointing losses to Illinois and Arizona State. Those in-conference letdowns for Wisconsin and Oregon, respectively, kept both teams from entering conference championship week with much of a shot at reaching the College Football Playoff.

But given nearly an entire month to recharge and study the opposing offensive schemes, defense figures to be the story in Pasadena this year.

For the Ducks D, the obvious goal will be slowing down Wisconsin's star running back Jonathan Taylorsomething only a handful of teams have been able to do over the past three seasons.

Taylor entered the year as one of just five FBS players to rush for at least 1,900 yards in multiple seasons. (The others were Ron Dayne, LaDainian Tomlinson, DeAngelo Williams and Troy Davis.) And after racking up 148 yards in the Big Ten championship, he is now the only player to hit that plateau three times, as well as one of just seven players to eclipse 6,000 career rushing yards.

He's the only player to reach 5,300 career yards in fewer than four seasons, and he blew by that total five games ago.

He's damn good. That's the point we're trying to make here. And if we ever decide to put together a list of the best college football players to never be named a Heisman finalist, Taylor is the blatantly obvious choice for the No. 1 spot.

Oregon knows a thing or two about slowing down an opponent's run game, though.

Oregon LB Troy Dye
Oregon LB Troy DyeTony Avelar/Associated Press

The Ducks allowed a meager 3.23 yards per carry and only four rushing touchdowns throughout the entire season. The only player to rush for at least 115 yards against them was Washington's Salvon Ahmed, who went for 140. They held the rest of the Huskies to four yards in that one.

Troy Dye is one of the best linebackers in the country. And after a bit of a slow start to the season, true freshman edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux was one of the most unblockable forces outside of Ohio State's Chase Young, accumulating 10.5 tackles for loss over his final five games.

Taylor has had some great performances against quality defenses, but that duo will be at the forefront of a unit that figures to stack the box far more often than not in an effort to neutralize Wisconsin's deadliest weapon.

When the Badgers defense is on the field, the battle to watch will be linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr versus the Ducks O-line and quarterback Justin Herbert.

Baun had 12.5 sacks this season, and Orr had an almost equally impressive 11.5 while pacing the Badgers to the national lead in sack yards. Wisconsin brought down the opposing quarterback at least four times in eight games this season, including five sacks of Justin Fields in each of the two games against Ohio State.

While the overall defensive effort against the Buckeyes could have been better, that success in the pass-rushing department is noteworthy because the Ducks also rely on high-percentage, quick routes to march down the field. If the Badgers were able to get pressure on Fields, perhaps they could do the same against Herbert, disrupting his rhythm and handcuffing the entire offense.

If Oregon's line can keep Herbert clean, though, that could spell trouble for Wisconsin's secondary, which has allowed at least 280 passing yards and multiple touchdowns in each of its last three games.

It's one thing to have trouble slowing down a Heisman finalist like Fields, but the Badgers made Purdue's Aidan O'Connell look like a four-year veteran in just his second career start. They also struggled with Minnesota's Tanner Morgan in a snow-globe game.

Give Herbert time to scan the field in what should be beautiful weather in Pasadena and the projected first-round draft pick might rip Wisconsin's defense to shreds.

Oregon QB Justin Herbert
Oregon QB Justin HerbertTony Avelar/Associated Press

However, for all the focus that will be given to Taylor and Herbert, the 106th installment of the Rose Bowl will likely boil down to the battle between Wisconsin's turnover-averse quarterback, Jack Coan, and Oregon's opportunistic defense.

The Ducks ranked second in the nation with 19 interceptions this season, and they came from all over the field. Nine different players picked off at least one pass. Combined with Herbert's ability to avoid turnoversfive interceptions on 408 pass attemptsthat secondary led Oregon to the nation's eighth-best turnover margin (plus-13).

But Coan was one of six quarterbacks to attempt at least 300 passes while throwing four or fewer interceptions. One other player on that listArizona State's Jayden Daniels—recently faced the Ducks and had his best game of the season while leading the Sun Devils to an upset victory.

If Coan can also post a bagel in the interception column, Wisconsin likely gets the W. This team is much better on defenseand has a more sensational running backthan Arizona State. If it could hang with Oregon just by avoiding turnovers, Wisconsin may cruise to victory by doing the same.

I expect a low-scoring brawl, though.

Taylor will rush for at least 100 yards, but he'll fall short of reaching at least 180. Herbert will lead a couple of long scoring drives, but the Badgers pass rush will limit him to a relatively pedestrian performance. And while Coan isn't often the reason Wisconsin wins games, his ability to avoid back-breaking mistakes will be the reason it doesn't lose this one.

Predictions: Wisconsin 24, Oregon 20; Offensive MVP: Jonathan Taylor; Defensive MVP: Zack Baun.


Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.