Saturday’s Rose Bowl between the Wisconsin Badgers and the TCU Horned Frogs (seriously) will pit the old school versus the new school. The Badgers are a classic team from a classic conference. The Horned Frogs are newcomers, challengers from the Mountain West Conference. In going undefeated this season, TCU has beaten teams like Air Force, Brigham Young and Nevada-Las Vegas. The Badgers, meanwhile, beat Ohio State and Iowa, classic teams with high BCS rankings (Ohio State was #1 at the time). If TCU wins, it will shatter the notion that classic conferences like the Big Ten, Pac-10 or SEC are somehow superior. The BCS ranking system will have to be re-evaluated to give non-BCS schools a better shot at top rankings. But if the Badgers win, it will prove the BCS system right, as all of TCU’s talents will have come for naught against the first “real” opponent they’ve faced all season.
Just as the Rose Bowl will determine whether the old-guard conferences are still superior, it will also show whether old-school strategy can still hold up. The Badgers play a classic-style of football, one that might recall for Wisconsinites the days of Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr and Paul Hornung. The Badgers don’t do anything flashy, they don’t use trickery and they don’t rely on big plays. What they play is up-the-middle, smash-mouth football. They rely on their monster offensive line (average size: 6-foot-5, 321 pounds) to open up holes, through which their trio of running backs- John Clay, Montee Ball and James White- can burst through. The three backs have racked up 2,829 yards and 44 scores. Football purists must love it.
TCU’s defense, meanwhile, is clearly inspired by Bill Belichick and the shifting, amorphous defensive strategy that has brought the New England Patriots such success over the last 10 years. Their goal is to confuse you, to make you think your man is open, only to throw an interception. Or they delay their blitzes or bring them in from uncommon angles so that the quarterback never sees them coming until it’s too late. All this trickery has created a defense that allows the fewest points (11.4), passing yards (126.3) and total yards (215.4) in the FBS. Gary Patterson may as well be wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and Brett Bielema a trench coat. So who wins?
Statistically, TCU has the offensive advantage, no matter how good the Badgers have been. TCU passes more (235.7 vs. 209.5 yards per game) and even rushes more (261.2 vs 247.3 yards per game), and they score exactly as many points (43.3 per game). Their quarterback, Andy Dalton, has thrown for more yards and more touchdowns with the same number of interceptions as Scott Tolzien (though Tolzien is far more accurate). TCU’s leading running back, Ed Wesley, has out-gained White, the Badgers leading rusher, 1,065 yards to 1,029. Both running backs had 1000-yard seasons, but White has scored more and gets more yards per rush (7.0 vs. 6.6). And neither back is going to play every down, and there’s a far larger drop-off from the Horned Frogs’ #1 to #2 back than there is with the Badgers. The Badgers second-best running back, John Clay, rushed for 936 yards and 13 touchdowns; Matthew Tucker rushed for just 694 yards and seven touchdowns.
On defense, this game seems reminiscent of last year’s Champ Sports Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes and their quarterback, Jacory Harris. Analysts wondered whether the Badgers could contain Harris and the Hurricanes’ running game. Instead of containing it, the Badgers defense pummeled it over and over again. They overpowered the Hurricanes, hitting them so hard that they couldn’t recover. TCU may pose a similar a similar challenge (Dalton has rushed for 407 yards and five touchdowns), and it may pose a similar solution. If the Badgers can out-hit the Horned Frogs, their defense will do more than enough to let the Badgers offense do what it does best. The Badgers cornerbacks aren’t anything special, so players like J.J. Watt will need to break through the line and force Dalton to throw early if they want to throw off his passing game.
In the end, this game is going to be won at the line of scrimmage. If the Badgers’ offensive line can overpower the Horned Frogs’ defensive line, the running game will open up. A strong running game will have a three-fold effect: put points on the board, chew up clock time and keep TCU’s offense off the field, and tire out the Horned Frogs defense for future Badgers possessions. The golden rush-pass ratio is 2:1. If the running game is doing its job, Tolzien won’t have to throw it so often that the Horned Frogs’ tricky defense will get the better of him. Tolzien is incredibly accurate in limited usage, and he has some fantastic receivers to throw to, like Nick Toon and Lance Kendricks. A strong running game will open up play-action, and then the Badgers will start making big plays. But first they have to make all the small plays.