Wisconsin posed a unique challenge with its massive offensive line, trio of explosive running backs, and sneaky play-action passing attack. Quarterback Curt Phillips compounded the headache by rushing for 64 surprising yards on a thrice-reconstructed knee.
Stanford's secondary was tasked with striking a perfect balance between run support and play-action awareness. Jordan Richards' game-opening sack from the safety position, a play that snuffed out running back Melvin Gordon's attempted trickery, was an auspicious start.
But the Badgers frustrated the Farm Boys in the second quarter, completing seven passes -- four of which the defense tipped. Stanford's secondary struggled to stop Wisconsin's fly sweep, middle gash and play-action combination. Phillips led the charge to a pair of touchdowns in the frame, necessitating second-half Cardinal adjustments.
Stanford answered the bell out of the locker room. Nearly all of A.J. Tarpley's team-leading nine tackles came in run support, while Shayne Skov's eight stops also fortified the middle of the field. That allowed cornerback Alex Carter to unleash his prodigious physicality on perimeter run support while the rest of the secondary stayed home. Richards, in fact, had the luxury of dropping into the deep safety position on a play-action pass before he pulverized Wisconsin receiver Chase Hammond in one of the game's signature moments.
That play epitomized Stanford's cold-blooded second half defensive discipline.
Grade: A (Wisconsin saw offensive success only in the second quarter and sustained it only as tipped passes were finding receivers. The Badgers' good times ran dry in the second half.)
Epic Defensive Effort
The Farm Boys overcame Oregon on the road despite being held scoreless for 10 straight possessions, a testament to the monumental defensive effort displayed in that game. Tuesday's Rose Bowl saw similar offensive struggles following a fast start, though the Cardinal's defense didn't have to overcome any turnovers this time around.
Still, its performance down the stretch was epic. For the sixth consecutive game, Stanford shut out its opponent in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin, a team that had racked up over 600 yards of total offense in its previous game, gained only 82 in the second half. Josh Mauro, David Parry, Alex Carter, and A.J. Tarpley, four second stringers at the beginning of the season, all delivered instrumental plays down the stretch.
Grade: A+ (While much focus has been reserved for Stanford's offensive development this season, the Cardinal's defense started they year playing excellently and improved from there.)
Balanced, Exhausting Attack
In my pregame version of these keys, I noted that achieving this key wouldn't be absolutely necessary if the Stanford defense delivered a heroic effort. That certainly ended up being the case. After a marvelous start that showcased a hybrid of the Andrew Luck era, the Oregon offense, and a sample of what USC's attack should have looked like this year, the Cardinal stalled. Six Daniel Zychlinski punts later, while there was a desire for improvement from Stanford's offense, that longing never materialized into regret because of studly play from guys like Josh Mauro (and many others).
Still, it must be noted that Kevin Hogan's knifing scrambles and Stepfan Taylor's tough running down the stretch chewed up just enough to clock to keep the Cardinal defense on rested toes. The attack performed a passable job. It's just going to have to improve for Stanford to have a legitimate shot of running the table next season without Notre Dame-type luck.
Grade: B- (The start of the game was impressive, but a 2013 national title bid will call for more than two offensive touchdowns in big games.)
A lack of aggressiveness cost Stanford the Fiesta Bowl, but early aggression and creativity put the Cardinal in position to win the Rose Bowl. David Shaw and Pep Hamilton presented a mesmerizing early plan of attack, heavily featuring Kelsey Young and a Wildcat play that reeversed its normal, boring failure. After an Anthony Wilkerson hand-off to Young and a pitch back, Drew Terrell found Jamal-Rashad Patterson for a 34-yard gain with pure offensive ingenuity. The Cardinal were prepared to seize New Year's Day.
Disappointingly, the early offensive spark disappeared when creativity vanished on Stanford's third series, a three-and-out of runs into the teeth of Wisconsin's stacked defense near the Cardinal's own end zone. But again, following a season-long theme, the Farm Boys' defense made that golden early aggressiveness stand.
Grade: A (Stanford's readiness for the moment coming out of the gate was impressive.)
David Lombardi is the Stanford Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMLombardi.
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