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December 30, 2012

All-Out Blitz: Stanford

Welcome to this week's "All-Out Blitz," where you'll find everything that you need to know about the Badgers' next opponent. The Badgers are back in the Rose Bowl for the third time in three years. Will they be able to pull of a win this time? Take a look at the All-Out Blitz and decide for yourself.

All Out Blitz: Stanford

What you need to know about Stanford

Head coach: David Shaw (2nd season @ Stanford), 22-4 (16-2 Pac-12)
Stanford All-Time Record: 676-455-52 (.593)
2012 Record: 11-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
Ranking: 8 (AP), 8 (Coaches Poll), 6 (BCS)
All-Time record against Wisconsin: 0-4-1

Last year

People have doubted Stanford for a while now. They made a comeback under former head coach Jim Harbaugh, and many said that losing him to the NFL would be too big of a hit for the Cardinal to overcome. But David Shaw's first season as head coach quelled a lot of those fears and doubts, as the Cardinal went on to win 11 games last season, and earned a berth in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State, which they lost in overtime. Their lone loss to Oregon held them out of the Rose Bowl or the national title game, and they rode former quarterback Andrew Luck as far as he could take them.

Season outlook

But after Luck left for the NFL, people started to doubt Stanford again. Shaw certainly helped them keep the momentum going after Harbaugh left, but how could the Cardinal keep up their winning ways after losing a No. 1 overall NFL draft pick at quarterback? Combine that with the nation's 12th-hardest schedule according to Phil Steele, as well as bringing back just 13 returning starters overall, and it was hard to see the Cardinal winning their division, let alone the Pac-12.

This year

Once again, Stanford proved their doubters wrong. Their lone losses came to Washington and Notre Dame on the road, and even their loss to Notre Dame was a little questionable. It looked like running back Stepfan Taylor broke the plane of the goal line during Notre Dame's overtime goal line stand, but the officials didn't see it so the ruling stood and Stanford lost the game.

Even still, the Cardinal managed to beat Oregon on the road and beat UCLA in back to back weeks to seal up the Pac-12 title, so it's safe to assume that the Stanford football program is set up for success for a little while. Obviously things can and will change, but it's clear that there was more to Stanford's success than just Harbaugh or a little bit of Luck.

But the strangest part of Stanford's season is that they've done it despite switching quarterbacks midway through the season. Josh Nunes started the first eight games of the season for the Cardinal, and didn't play horribly. He completed 52.8 percent of his passes and had a 10-to-7 TD to INT ratio, but Shaw decided that Kevin Hogan was ready for the job after Hogan threw for 184 yards and two touchdowns against Colorado in early November. Since then, Hogan has been pretty darn good for the Cardinal, and it's made Shaw look like a genius. Hogan has a 72.9 percent completion rating through five games and four starts, and has played a big part in keeping Stanford in the hunt for a conference championship. The Badgers could only wish that their quarterback switch went as well as it did for Stanford.

People also say that Stanford is the most like a Big Ten team of any other team in the Pac-12, and it's not hard to see why. They rely on great offensive line play to establish their running game, which is led by running back Stepfan Taylor. Taylor has followed up on a great 2011 season with another great one in 2012. The 5-foot-11 back has 1442 yards this season on 302 carries, which is good enough for 4.77 yards per carry. Taylor averages 110.92 yards per game this season, and has 12 touchdowns as well. He's also a pass-catching threat, since he has 38 catches and two scores through the air this season.

Aside from Taylor, the Cardinal have a few other receiving options as well. Tight end Zach Ertz has been a consistent threat this season, and has 837 yards on 66 catches so far. Ertz has six touchdowns as well, and has stepped into Coby Fleener's shoes in a big way. Wide receiver Drew Terrell is also a major pass-catching threat. Terrell has 443 yards on 31 receptions, and averages about 14.29 yards per catch as well. Terrell has four touchdowns this season, including two in Stanford's last two games. Tight end Levine Toilolo and wide receiver Jamal-Rashad Patterson are also pass-catching options for Hogan to use.

On defense, Stanford has the No. 14 scoring defense in the country, and allows just 17.5 points per game. They're 21st in the country in total defense, and have a +8 turnover margin this season.

But the Cardinal really make their mark on defense in their opponent's backfield. Stanford leads the nation in sacks this season with a grand total of 56, or about 4.3 per game. Outside linebacker Trent Murphy leads the team with 10 sacks this season, and fellow outside linebacker Chase Thomas is right behind him with 7.5 sacks. That's not two surprising, since Stanford's 3-4 defense will naturally funnel those kind of statistics to their outside linebackers, but it'll still be a lot for Wisconsin's offensive line to handle.

Matchup to watch: Trench warfare
On either side, this game will be won or lost in the trenches. Wisconsin's remodeled offensive line will have to try and neutralize Stanford's very aggressive 3-4 front, which isn't something they have a lot of experience against. Only Utah State ran a 3-4 against the Badgers this season, and their creativity certainly gave them trouble during the game. It's the same thing for the Cardinal: the Badgers won't be holding back or leaving creative blitzes and schemes in their playbook, so they'll need to not only prepare for what's on tape but also be ready to see a formation or two that they haven't had a chance to prepare for yet.

On the other side, both team's offensive lines will need to pave the way for their running backs. Establishing the ground game will be key to winning this Rose Bowl, and both teams will be looking to blow the opposing defensive line back play after play to make room for Montee Ball or Taylor, respectively.

The pick: Wisconsin 21 Stanford 17

I wrote this whole piece fully intending to pick Stanford to win the Rose Bowl. They've had a better season, haven't had to deal with a coaching change, and had a downfield passing attack. Those are just a few reasons why you could pick Stanford to win this game, and you'd be completely justified in doing so.

But this has been the absolute wackiest season for any team I've followed in my time watching sports. The Badgers blew out Nebraska when nobody thought they would, and a third straight loss in the Rose Bowl would be devastating for both the players and the fans. But that's why I'm picking the Badgers- in the craziest season I've ever seen, all bets are off, and it would make sense in it's own strange way that an 8-5 and unranked Wisconsin team would be the one to win a Rose Bowl, instead of the 11-2 and 11-1 versions we've seen over the last two seasons.

But if you're looking for actual reasons why I think the Badgers pull this one off, here you go: I think their record doesn't indicate how well they've played this season, apart from their first few games. FootballOutsiders.com has them ranked No. 15 in the country, and says they have a top-30 offense and a top-10 defense. In addition, the Cardinal have given up about 21 or so points when they face a team with an offense in Football Outsiders' top-31, and they have scored about 17 against teams with a top-31 defense, both of which the Badgers qualify for. It's a hunch, but I think this is the year where the Badgers come back home from Pasadena with a trophy.

The point after:

You'll probably remember this, but the last time the Badgers met up with the Cardinal was in the 2000 Rose Bowl Game. Coincidentally, the Badgers won 17-9, and it was interim head coach Barry Alvarez' last game in the Rose Bowl until now.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.

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