2012 Rose Bowl Preview: Wisconsin vs. Oregon

As good as Wisconsin's offense has been, Oregon's combination of RB LaMichael James and QB Darron Thomas may be too much to handle at the 2012 Rose Bowl. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Tuesday’s 2012 Rose Bowl matches up the losers of the previous two Rose Bowls: Wisconsin lost to TCU in 2011; Oregon to Ohio State in 2010. Each team wants a victory to replace the sour taste of the previous year’s loss, and for the Ducks the feeling is doubled, having lost last year’s BCS Championship.

The Badgers and Ducks mirror each other in many other ways, too. Both went 11-2 in the regular season, each losing one game they absolutely should have won (Wisconsin vs. OSU, Oregon vs. USC). Both teams feature rush-first offenses, with the Ducks ranked sixth (295.7) and the Badgers 11th (237.4) in the NCAA in rushing yards per game. And both teams score a ton of points, with the Ducks ranked third in the NCAA in points per game (46.2), and the Badgers just two points behind at fifth.

So who wins? Here’s my preview.

Wisconsin Offense Slightly Better

Both offenses play at the extremely high level expected of two top-five scoring teams. Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson connects over 70 percent of the time, averages a first down a catch and rarely makes mistakes, posting a ridiculous 31-3 touchdown-interception ratio. Oregon’s Darron Thomas, meanwhile, throws with 61.4 percent accuracy and sports a 5:1 (30:6 actual) touchdown-interception ratio. Wilson’s speed, especially running against a blitz, gives him a slight edge, but only slight.

Wisconsin has the same slight edge at running back. Heisman Trophy-finalist Montee Ball has rushed for more yards and scored more touchdowns than anyone else in the NCAA. He could very well break Barry Sanders’ record for single-season touchdowns. Ball is the best offensive weapon the Badgers have, but he’s still only slightly better than the Ducks’ LaMichael James, who ranks fourth in the NCAA with 1,646 and averages a yard more per carry than Ball.

Ball can take over games, but so can James. Look for the Badgers to try at least one Ball-to-Wilson pass this game – it’s worked twice this season for big gains, but Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema so rarely uses trick plays that this one hasn’t lost its surprise-factor.

At receiver, the Badgers have a bigger advantage. Both teams’ top two receivers have combined for 16-17 touchdowns, but Wisconsin’s Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis have racked up nearly 600 more yards than Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas and Lavasier Tuinei. If either team has to win the game in the air, Wisconsin’s receivers are far more likely to make big plays. And if the Ducks shut down the actual wideouts, tight end Jacob Pederson (339 yards, eight touchdowns) might just make a play or two.

Ducks Stronger Up Front Defensively

The Ducks have the third-best sacking defense in the league. Defensive end Dion Jordan leads the team with just 7.5 of the team’s 42 total, suggesting just how many pass-rushers the Ducks have that can reach the QB. That’s bad news for the Badgers’ offensive line, which has suffered several injuries and allowed 20 sacks on Wilson. If the Ducks’ break through the line the way they’ve been able to in the past, it could be a long day for Wilson. Still, even during a blitz Wilson has often show nthe wherewithal to either tuck the ball and run, throw it away or just take the hit and get back up.

The Ducks intercept passes just slightly (16-15) better than the Badgers, but their pickoff-prowess lies once again in their front seven. For the Badgers, most of the pickoffs have come from the secondary, including four each from safety Shelton Johnson and defensive back Antonio Fenelus. However, opportunistic defensive backs are a double-edged sword: if they make the right moves they can often turn the game around with key interceptions, misses leave their receivers open for huge gains.

Prediction

Neither team kicks a lot of field goals, though the Badgers are slightly more accurate. This game is really going to be decided at the line of scrimmage. If the Ducks establish James’ running game, James can easily match Ball yard for yard. If the Ducks have to pass, their offensive line has been much better at protecting Thomas, allowing just nine sacks.

If the Badgers can get to Thomas and force some bad passes, their chances of a game-changing interception go up. Otherwise, the Ducks will pick apart the Badgers’ defensive vulnerabilities.

The Badgers allow nearly a touchdown fewer per game than the Ducks, but the Ducks execute on a level the Badgers rarely face. Like other opponents, the Ducks will put up big yardage totals. But unlike other teams, the Ducks will match that yardage with scores.

Ducks 41, Badgers 34.

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