Stanford focuses on stopping the ball
LOS ANGELES -- One would think that Stanford's players are heading into the final week of game preparation relaxed and confident about what will take place on New Year's Day in Pasadena. Stanford's Rose Bowl opponent, Wisconsin, is making history as the first team with five losses to play in the grandaddy of them all. The Cardinal meanwhile are playing in their third straight BCS game and are one of the hottest teams in the country.
Despite all the positive sentiment on their side heading into the game however, Stanford is approaching next week's matchup with all the seriousness of a business trip as they look to accomplish something that hasn't been done on the Farm since 1972.
[Related: Thursday's full press conference video]
The team spent the bulk of its 15 bowl practices focused on correcting mistakes made in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game and preparing to face the Badgers, who put up 70 points the last time they took the field. With Doak Walker Award winner Montee Ball -- the NCAA's all-time leader in touchdowns scored -- in the Badgers' backfield, Stanford players and coaches are well aware that this year's bowl game presents a new and serious challenge despite the mismatch in overall records.
"Montee Ball is probably as good of a back as I've seen on tape," Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason said at Thursday's daily press conference in Los Angeles. "Playing good backs [in the Pac-12] has shown what we can do to this point. Each back presents their own problems though. He's got size, speed, vision and is very much like Stepfan Taylor. And it's not just Ball, it's their core group of backs. All three have been able to put up huge numbers."
"He runs hard, he knows when to be patient and burst through the hole," linebacker Chase Thomas added about Ball. "He's got great vision and will be a big challenge for us. They also have two other running backs that are just as good."
As a result, the latest edition of the Rose Bowl features two teams going at it with strength versus strength. Wisconsin ranked 12th in the country in rushing during the season and ran the ball 316 times more than they threw it. Stanford wound up 3rd in the country in rush defense, allowing just 87 yards per game. The teams are essentially mirrors of each other, playing physical defense and running the ball to set up play action passes to receivers who aren't exactly known for stretching the field.
Add in the fact that the Badgers' starting quarterback Curt Phillips is making just his fifth career start in Pasadena and one easily understands why the emphasis the past few weeks has been about stopping the run.
"They've ran the ball on 3rd and 12 this year," Thomas said with a serious laugh. "We have to be able to prove that they can't run the ball on us and get a 1st down."
"My position group didn't really prepare much for the quarterback because we know when they pass the ball, pass rush is pass rush and we're going to get after them. We have to stop the run first. We have to make them throw the ball and win on 1st and 2nd down to put them in 3rd and long."
With the clock ticking down to game time and the team arriving in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Stanford is confident they are ready for whatever Wisconsin throws at them and have begun to shift focus away from game planning against their opponent and turn the spotlight back on themselves as they practice over the coming days.
"It did help to get the extra time. We went back to fundamentals," Thomas said. "We rotated different drills like we did back in fall camp. We needed to get those fundamentals back because some of them were lost late in the season, particularly in the Pac-12 Championship Game. So we went back and got those sharpened up as we looked at Wisconsin. Now that we're down here (in Los Angeles), we're just going to focus on ourselves and playing physical."
"For us, everything up to this point has been about Wisconsin and moving forward it has to be about us. We have to make sure we do the things that we need to do in order to play our best game," said Mason. "If we worry about what they're trying to do, it takes away from what we're doing -- which is play our best game."
With the Cardinal returning to the granddaddy of them all for the first time since the 1999 season, the calm, quiet confidence that has been a hallmark of their late-season run to the roses remains in full effect. At the same time, the daily message of hard work has kept the team focused on the task at hand knowing that business isn't finished until they're holding up a trophy on Tuesday afternoon.
"This is a blue-collar group from top to bottom," Mason said. "I know the perception about Stanford and being up on the Farm and the intelligence factor but let me tell you, when you talk about playing football, these guys play football."