From the players to the fanfare to the game, the State Journal has you covered at the Rose Bowl. Check out all of our preview coverage here.
The UW Marching Band performed Tuesday at the Rose Bowl Bash in downtown Los Angeles. The Badgers play Oregon in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday in…
'It's all coming full circle:' Badgers' Jack Sanborn set to face Oregon, his father's alma mater
PASADENA, Calif. — Paul Sanborn never got to see his son Jack play football for the University of Wisconsin. But he’s been on Jack’s mind often this month.
Jack, a sophomore inside linebacker for the Badgers, is preparing for a Rose Bowl matchup with the Oregon Ducks, the team Paul lettered for three times as an offensive lineman from 1980 to '82. Paul passed away in 2005 when Jack was 4 years old, but his time as a Duck was influential for Jack as he grew up.
When the Badgers learned they’d be playing Oregon in college football’s longest-running bowl game, Jack said the emotions hit him quickly.
“If you could draw it out, this is the game that I came here to play in. To go up against that team, who I kind of grew up watching, it’s all coming full circle. It’s pretty amazing,” Sanborn said.
Sanborn had mementos and reminders of his father’s football career at Oregon growing up — an Oregon helmet, a letter jacket, and photographs from Paul’s days as a Duck.
Oregon was the team that got Sanborn interested in watching college football, and the first team he rooted for. He and his family attended the 2010 Rose Bowl when the Ducks played against Ohio State. Some of Paul’s friends and former teammates who have stayed close with the family are planning to attend Wednesday's game and support Jack.
Teammates know Oregon holds a special place in Sanborn’s heart, and have ribbed him about making sure he stays on their side during the Rose Bowl.
“We mess with him. We’re like, ‘Don’t be out here point-shaving,’” senior Chris Orr said with a laugh. “We mess with him, but he doesn’t like (Oregon) at the end of the day.”
In order for UW (10-3) to beat Oregon (11-2), Sanborn is going to need to be the high-impact player he’s shown he can be this season. Slowing down Oregon’s rushing attack and keeping tabs on quarterback Justin Herbert will be two of Sanborn’s key responsibilities.
Sanborn, a Deer Park, Ill., native, is tied with Orr for the team lead with 72 tackles and he has nine tackles for loss. He has started all 13 games, and rarely leaves the field. While Orr has become a bigger part of the pass rush from his inside linebacker spot, Sanborn has been responsible for more pass coverage.
“For a guy to come in and be able to handle what we ask them to do and be extremely consistent is extremely hard,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “I have a lot of respect for the way he's handled himself throughout the course of the year. And it's been a grind for him being a young player with a big-time change in load obviously from last year to this year. So anytime a guy can handle that and just be the same guy every day, you have to respect that.”
Orr said Sanborn has developed into a high-caliber player quickly because he prepares correctly.
“Last year, he was asking the right questions, you could tell he was thinking the right way. Now, he studies the game like he’s supposed to, he practices hard, so when he gets to the game, it’s easy for him. He just puts two and two together and keeps going. I’m proud of how Jack has played. I think he’s going to have an even bigger year next year,” Orr said.
Paul Sanborn’s Oregon teams never earned a Rose Bowl bid, but the Sanborns are hoping Jack isn’t the last family member to get to play in the game. Jack’s brother Bryan is a three-star linebacker who gave his oral commitment to the Badgers earlier this month.
Jack said he was always confident Bryan would come to UW, but he heard about it from teammates and coaches while Bryan was making up his mind.
“Since he first got the offer — last year, I think it was — the coaches would come up to me and the players would annoy me nonstop. ‘Wow, does your brother really like you? He doesn’t want to come play with you?’” Sanborn said.
“The day he did it, I didn’t even know. The whole family knew. I was right there with coach Chryst when he called. We were all standing there and he was like, ‘Since everyone’s here, I just wanted to say I want to commit.’ I was happy for him.”
Badgers vs. Oregon: Who has the edge?
From Amherst to Pasadena, Badgers' Tyler Biadasz, Garrett Groshek share special journey
PASADENA, Calif. — Before they were part of the University of Wisconsin football team, Tyler Biadasz and Garrett Groshek hugged on the field at Camp Randall Stadium.
They had just won the WIAA Division 5 state championship for Amherst in 2015, but they didn’t know what the future held. Biadasz had a scholarship to UW, but Groshek was still deciding on his college future. In that moment, they shared how much they appreciated each another, not knowing if they’d ever play together again. They learned they would months later when Groshek chose to join UW as a walk-on, and the redshirt juniors have enjoyed successful careers with the Badgers.
A similar scene could play out after Wednesday’s Rose Bowl — the Badgers (10-3) take on Oregon (11-2) with Biadasz’s and Groshek’s future as teammates again in flux.
Biadasz is one of the top-rated interior linemen eligible for the NFL draft and is a projected first- or second-round pick. He hasn’t announced a decision yet, but he did submit his name to the NFL’s College Advisory Committee for a second consecutive year.
Biadasz and Groshek have taken on leadership roles and been key players in UW’s offense since their redshirt freshman seasons — an unlikely experience for many players, especially players from Amherst, a town of about 1,000 people 16 miles southeast of Stevens Point.
“What Tyler and ‘Grosh’ have done, they’ve done it their style. They’ve done it by being true to who they are, incredibly unselfish. It’s pretty cool because you would never guess, just percentage-wise, you get two guys from that town maybe in the history of the program. And those two to be doing it side-by-side, in very different ways, it’s pretty cool,” UW coach Paul Chryst said.
Entering what could be their final game as teammates, they know the path they’ve forged together was built on sacrifice and a strong friendship — and that they’ve made an impact on the program.
“As we’ve been here for a few years now, four years, you kind of start to realize how special it is. And at first you don’t really realize it, but as the end starts coming, then you start to realize it more,” Groshek said.
Ability to adapt
At UW, Biadasz and Groshek each play a different position than the one they excelled at for Amherst.
That’s saying something when you consider how valuable each has become at their new spots for the Badgers. Biadasz won the Rimington Award as the nation’s top center this year, and was a unanimous All-American pick. Groshek has been a do-everything tailback behind junior Jonathan Taylor and a special teams ace throughout his UW career.
Mark Lusic, their coach at Amherst, wasn’t surprised when Biadasz made the transition from defensive lineman to center — especially after he saw offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph pull Biadasz to his group to have him watch and learn at a spring practice. But Groshek’s move from quarterback to running back stunned Lusic.
“Not in a million years. I’m not saying he couldn’t succeed (at running back), but I never thought he’d be there to be honest with you,” Lusic said. “I remember I went down to spring practice when he got moved. He got a lot of carries because (Taylor) wasn’t there yet and Bradrick Shaw and Chris James were penciled in to start. Garrett took a lot reps, and he actually looked pretty good running the ball, looked pretty smooth back there. That spring practice you could tell he had something going on. You could see he was hitting his holes, reading the offensive line when they opened up for him.”
Lusic didn’t let Groshek to play defense at Amherst — he was too valuable at quarterback. But Lusic told college coaches Groshek was smart enough to play any spot on the field that they thought he could fit athletically.
Groshek has been the best pass-blocking back for UW through his career, which speaks to the unselfish nature Chryst sees in both him and Biadasz.
“I think it does go back to love of the game, and I think love of a team. Like, ‘Whatever you need us to do, we’ll do.’ And then when they do it, they go all-in,” Chryst said.
It’s rarely what they intend to have happen, but people tend to follow Biadasz and Groshek.
Being as talented as they were and as important as they were to their Amherst teams, it was natural they’d take on leadership roles. They were starters on a state championship team as freshmen, and by the time they were juniors, Lusic made them captains.
Problem was, neither wanted the role.
“I said, ‘Tough. That’s how it’s going to be. You’re the two best players, everybody knows it, and you guys do it right. This is how it’s going to be,’” Lusic said.
“Year by year, they molded into that, they found their voice. The big thing was the weight room — they led there. A lot of times those guys would lift three times a day. They’d come in the morning, lift in the morning, they’d lift during our weight room period or study hall, and then come after school when they could. So they were always in there, always encouraging guys. So that was probably the biggest thing — guys trusted them.”
Those leadership qualities came with them to UW. Biadasz’s role at center makes him a natural leader because he’s making calls at the line of scrimmage. Groshek’s varied roles and success in them made him someone to emulate, Chryst said.
“Our passion is to get the guys ready to play, each and every group, and bringing an energy. When we do that, and we see each other do that, I think that says enough,” Biadasz said. “If we lead together, and do stuff together like we always have, that’s special to me. Just to carry that over from high school and to do that at a collegiate, Division I level, I’m really proud of us and what we’ve done so far. But we’re never satisfied. That’s the thing that’s awesome about it.”
Leaning on each other
While they were friends in high school, being at UW brought Biadasz and Groshek much closer.
“We never went different ways. We never had a chance to not talk to each other and not communicate and interact with each other. So that’s really helped to grow our friendship,” Groshek said.
They’ve lived together and been there for each other through difficult times, like this past offseason when Biadasz needed surgery on his hip.
People around them see their bond clearly.
“I think they’ve probably always pushed each other and enjoyed doing that for each other along the journey. And I think they continue to — they have fun back and forth but they count on each other in a big way. And it’s awesome to see,” Rudolph said.
Appreciated in Amherst
Groshek laughed when asked about what it’s like to go back to his hometown.
It’s rare that they get the chance, as school and football take up so much of their time, but when they do, it’s always an event.
“I know when they come back, they get mobbed pretty good by the community,” Lusic said.
Amherst, a town already full of Badgers fans, has had two players to feel connected to for four seasons. That’s been something Lusic said is felt every Saturday — the community roots especially hard for its native sons.
With Biadasz’s NFL decision on the horizon, and Groshek’s career about to enter its final year, Lusic said it’s been bittersweet.
“It’s going to be a sad day, for me personally. I haven’t coached them in four years, I wish I could coach them again, every day I wish I could coach them again,” he said.
“But it’s going to be a great day. Hopefully they get the ‘W,’ that’s the biggest thing, but it’s going to be different if Tyler decides to move on. And Garrett’s going to graduate no matter what next year also. It’s going to be a different, but hey, to go out on a Rose Bowl, there would be no better place to go if they can take care of business. They can walk off that field together, it’ll be a special moment, no doubt.”
Badgers vs. Oregon: Who has the edge?
State Journal reporter Colten Bartholomew breaks down the Rose Bowl matchup between UW and Oregon.
There are few things a University of Wisconsin football team can do that earn immortality on the walls of Camp Randall Stadium. The group of B…
The University of Wisconsin football team has had its share of ups and downs in the Rose Bowl.
While he hasn’t explicitly stated so, all signs point to the Rose Bowl being running back Jonathan Taylor’s final game with the University of …
Tom Oates: These Badgers, Ducks very different than the teams that met in 2012 Rose Bowl
PASADENA, Calif. — If you were lucky enough to see the 2012 Rose Bowl, chances are you haven’t forgotten Oregon speed demons LaMichael James and De’Anthony Thomas trading haymakers with University of Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson until the clock finally ran out on the Badgers.
At the time, the Ducks’ 45-38 victory was the highest-scoring game in Rose Bowl history.
“It was like a racetrack, freakin’ back and forth,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “It was an awesome game.”
How things have changed in eight years.
When 11th-ranked UW (10-3) and seventh-ranked Oregon (11-2) stage a Rose Bowl rematch Wednesday, it might well end up being an awesome game. It won’t, however, turn into a 60-minute drag race.
Both programs have changed considerably since that day in the Southern California sun. Under former coach Chip Kelly, Oregon was college football’s fastest team and most explosive offense. UW hasn’t found a playmaking quarterback who could carry the team on his back since Wilson’s one-and-done season.
This season, both teams are solid offensively but lean more on their defenses, both of which rank in the top 10 nationally in fewest points allowed. That’s a radical departure, especially for the Ducks.
“They were an explosive offense with speed and they had some good players on defense, but I think it was an offensive-driven team,” said UW coach Paul Chryst, the Badgers’ offensive coordinator eight years ago. “This year’s team, I’m impressed with them defensively. They do a good job of getting off blocks and running to the ball. Offensively, in a different way, they still can be explosive. It seems different than that team. But I think it’s a really good team.”
Eight years ago, Oregon entered the Rose Bowl ranked sixth and UW was eighth. Both were coming off victories in their conference championship games. But it was the offenses that caused people to sit up and take notice. That season, Oregon was ranked third in the nation with 46.1 points per game and UW was sixth with a school-record 44.1 average.
Pairing those two offenses in the Rose Bowl produced numbers so staggering it looked like a Big 12 Conference game had broken out. The teams combined for 1,120 yards — 612 by Oregon, 508 by UW.
James and Thomas, who moonlighted as 100-meter runners on the Oregon track team, rushed for 159 and 155 yards, respectively, leading a running game that totaled 345 yards. Amazingly, Thomas only carried the ball twice, for touchdowns of 91 and 64 yards. Even more amazing, neither one was named the offensive player of the game. That honor went to wide receiver Lavasier Tuinei, who caught eight passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter.
The Badgers, who led on five occasions during the game, had uncommon balance offensively. Wilson threw for 295 yards as wide receivers Jared Abbrederis and Nick Toon each went over 100 yards receiving. Tailback Montee Ball rushed for 165 yards.
Other than the quarterback position, UW hasn’t changed a whole lot on offense since that day. It still relies on a power running game with two-time Doak Walker Award winner Jonathan Taylor as the centerpiece. UW’s defense is much improved, however, having become a perennial top-10 unit nationally over the past seven years.
The Ducks, on the other hand, have changed dramatically. Coach Mario Cristobal came to Oregon in 2017 after four seasons as an assistant coach at Alabama and is changing the program’s long-standing image as a track team in cleats. Cristobal is turning the Ducks into a Crimson Tide-like blend of speed and power, which was good enough to give them the Pac-12 Conference championship this season. Senior quarterback Justin Herbert, a likely first-round NFL draft pick, leads the way, but the running backs — Cristobal uses three — are no longer the fastest players on the field.
“This team wants to be physical,” UW linebacker Chris Orr said. “They want to run the ball and not even throw it. Their running backs want to get north-south. Everybody’s trying to finish the play in a dominant position, just like us. They’re just doing it in a different way. They’re just doing it from the spread instead of the ‘I.’ I would say they’re different from that team in that they want to hit you in the mouth. Before, it was more so about getting it to the athletes out in space, but they want to hit you in the mouth.”
Not just on offense, either.
“They get off blocks, they tackle extremely well, they’re physical,” Rudolph said. “They can be all those things within this multiple defense that shifts into different fronts at the last minute, disguises coverages, brings pressures. It’s situational. It can be completely different. I think that’s a hard thing to do, to remain physical and do all the other stuff. They’ve proven to do that. And so I think that makes them a great challenge.”
Actually, the teams are as evenly matched as it gets. Oregon scores 35.8 points per game, UW 34.6. Oregon allows 15.7 points per game, UW 16.1. Oregon no longer has the blinding speed that gave UW fits, but UW won’t be able to push it around, either.
So while the schools may be the same, the game won’t be.
Badgers vs. Oregon: Who has the edge?
Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard 'home' in Madison, not drawn to other jobs yet
PASADENA, Calif. — Jim Leonhard has been through this before.
The University of Wisconsin football team’s defensive coordinator picks up on the chatter surrounding him as a potential head coach just as he heard people talk up his abilities as a player during his NFL career.
In his third year as coordinator, Leonhard’s defense ranks in the top ten in the Football Bowl Subdivision in a number of key statistics. Entering the Rose Bowl against No. 7 Oregon, No. 11 UW ranks second in third-down defense (.271 conversion rate), eighth in total defense (293.5 yards allowed per game) and 10th scoring defense (16.1 points per game allowed).
That kind of production with a young defensive roster has Leonhard’s name popping up every time a college football program is looking for a new coach, and as a candidate for NFL assistant jobs. But Leonhard said this week that he’s enjoying his time at UW that Madison is home for him.
“I'm extremely happy doing what I'm doing and where I'm doing it. And this place means a lot to me. And I love college football because it's more than Saturday. It's about the impact of these guys and how do you get them to grow and develop. And that is one of the top things on my mind as a coach, not just Xs and Os. And it's not like that every place. That's not valued at every place, and to me that's a huge part of it,” he said.
Leonhard said it “feels great” when he’s recognized as one of the top assistants in college football, but he maintains his focus on improving as a coach.
“I know I'm still an extremely young coach. There's coaches out there that have forgotten more than I know at this point. And I don't take that for granted. I understand the growth that I need to have from now till next season. I know over the course of time where I want to be as a coach,” Leonhard said.
“And I guess that's what I focus on more so than opportunities or more so than what people are telling me. Like, I know my strengths. I know my weaknesses. I think that's what helps me be good, but also just keeps me down the path of not worrying what you guys (the media) say so much.”
Taylor makes most of trip
Senior receiver A.J. Taylor has been getting his California experience by way of a scooter.
His right leg dons a boot and sits immobile on the scooter as he rehabs the torn Achilles tendon he suffered in the second quarter of the regular-season finale against Minnesota. Taylor said he’s expecting a six-to-nine month recovery before trying to catch on with an NFL team.
“It’s tough. I did know really what was going on, and it was emotional once I found out I actually tore it. But a couple days after that, it’s just about what’s next,” Taylor said.
He finished his season with 267 yards and two touchdowns on 23 catches, and posted career totals of 89 catches for 1,316 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Taylor said his mission this week is to help his receivers prepare and give them pointers during the game against the Ducks. But being in Los Angeles was beneficial for his future plans as well, as Taylor wants to enter the movie business once he’s finished at UW. He said he’s made connections in the field already.
“I want to be an actor, I want to get into film-making and all of that,” he said. “We’re in a great spot for that.”
Baun excited by the challenge
The matchup between UW senior linebacker Zack Baun and Oregon tackle Penei Sewell figures to be one of the most important of the Rose Bowl.
Baun’s 12½ sacks lead the Badgers and his consistent pressure is crucial to the defense. Sewell won the Outland Trophy as the top lineman in the country. Baun has battled some of the best tackles in the country in the Big Ten Conference, with Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs and Ohio State’s Thayer Munford standing out among that group. But Baun says Sewell is one of the best he’s seen.
“He’s definitely at the top. He’s the real deal, and when you watch him on film, you can tell why he won that trophy. He’s a physical dude, he’s big, but he’s also athletic,” Baun said.
How Baun fares against Sewell — a player already projected as the top lineman in the 2021 NFL Draft — could impact his rising draft stock as well.
Speaking on The Ryen Russillo Podcast, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said Baun is, “one of the more versatile, instinctive, consistent defensive players in the country,” and that it “wouldn’t shock” him if Baun were to become a first-round pick.
Baun will participate in the Reese’s Senior Bowl in January, which will allow him to be around NFL coaches and evaluators for a week.
Moorman ready to go
Senior guard David Moorman is healthy again after missing the majority of the Minnesota game and the Big Ten Championship due to an ankle injury.
He’ll start at left guard, the spot he took over the second half of the season. The fifth-year senior said he’s ready to end his college career on a high note.
“I’m pumped. It was definitely a hard couple of weeks,” Moorman said. “One last game as a Badger. I can’t wait to be out there with the guys one last time.
Who has the edge when the Badgers take on Oregon in the Rose Bowl?
Tom Oates: Bowl games bring out best in Badgers coach Paul Chryst
PASADENA, Calif. — With several weeks to prepare for bowl games, college football coaches often get adventuresome, putting in new plays and schemes they wouldn’t have time for in their normal week-to-week routine.
Tight end Jake Ferguson is hoping University of Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst is at his creative best when the Badgers (10-3) meet Oregon (11-2) Wednesday in the Rose Bowl.
“I’ve definitely wanted a tight end reverse pass put in,” Ferguson said with a laugh. “I told Coach we have the weeks to prepare, but I don’t know if he’s going to do it.”
You never know. Chryst has displayed considerable offensive creativity in bowl games, but putting in new wrinkles is only one reason he has a 4-0 bowl record at UW. Chryst has also shown a remarkable ability to get his players to perform at a high level in bowl games, something that isn’t easy for coaches to do, especially when their team is coming off a disappointing loss or season.
Of course, it helps when you’re in the Rose Bowl, the greatest consolation prize in sports. If you fall short of the four-team playoff, a game in Pasadena is the next best thing.
“This is the bowl game you want to go to,” tailback Jonathan Taylor said. “Before college playoffs was a thing, this was the bowl. So we’re going to be out there and be really excited.”
With Chryst pulling the strings, that’s almost a given. He learned how to prepare a team from the old bowl-meister himself, former UW coach and current UW athletic director Barry Alvarez. Alvarez was 3-1 in Rose Bowls and 9-4 in bowls overall, including a 1-1 record as an interim coach.
Chryst was the offensive coordinator in Alvarez’s final season in 2005 and remained in that position through 2011 before becoming the coach at Pitt, where his bowl record was 1-1 in three seasons. You may recall that Chryst’s game plan in Alvarez’s final game as coach was a thing of beauty. UW couldn’t match Auburn’s team speed in the Capitol One Bowl, but Chryst schemed to get his two fastest players — tailback Brian Calhoun and wide receiver Brandon Williams — the ball in space, resulting in more than 200 yards from scrimmage from each one in the Badgers’ 24-10 victory.
Since Chryst took over at UW, the Badgers have beaten USC, Western Michigan and Miami (Fla.) in bowl games — defeating Miami twice. His game plans included things like tight end screens, more fullback runs and, last year, option runs by quarterback Jack Coan.
Those weren’t wholesale changes, just a little something to make the opposing coaches and players scramble. Chryst said there is a fine line between putting in new things and overloading his players.
“You’ve got time to maybe put in something specifically for the opponent, but you had better not try and reinvent everything,” he said, noting that his players had reduced practice time since the regular season was pushed back this season and UW played in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game. “You don’t have a ton of time. You can put in a play-action pass off of something because you see how they fit it or you can put in something else, but the bulk of your plays better be from the bulk of your offense.”
More important than the game plan is the team’s approach. Alvarez always told his players to have fun when it was time to have fun and work when it was time to work. Chryst does the same.
“I think what I took away from him was that it’s a reward for the players and for the coaches’ families and so enjoy that part of it, and then I also believe the thing you still will remember the most is the game,” Chryst said. “So if you can balance those two, you can make it a success.”
Alvarez has praised Chryst for making bowl games important to the players, something that can be difficult. Some players might be thinking of their NFL future, others might have checked out mentally when the team fell short of its goals.
Only in Chryst’s first year did UW go into a bowl game off a victory. The Badgers lost in the Big Ten title game in 2016, 2017 and again this year. Last year, they were coming off a shocking loss to Minnesota. Yet, they always come to play, usually jumping out to early leads.
“I think Coach does a great job of telling them to be in the moment,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “It’s the holiday season. It’s bowl game festivities. Enjoy what you’re doing, have fun with it. And the two key things are focus and caring about each other.”
A good way to tell how important the game is to UW’s players is their attendance. These days, college players routinely duck out of bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft process.
UW has players who could have opted for that route this year, but will continue its streak of never having a player bypass a bowl game. The program’s culture won’t allow it.
“I think it says a lot about their character, first and foremost,” linebacker Chris Orr said. “Second, I think it says a lot that they love football. Collectively as a program, we love football here. When you love football, you don’t just skip out on your last game with your team. I’m not saying people don’t. I definitely understand the decision. I wouldn’t be mad at somebody if they did. But we truly love each other and nobody wants to leave anybody behind. You don’t want to end your last game as a team or your last game with some of your teammates on that Big Ten loss. You want to finish with a win.”
Under Chryst, that’s what UW does.
Badgers vs. Oregon: Who has the edge?
Badgers freshman QB Graham Mertz gains valuable experience on road to Rose Bowl
PASADENA, Calif. — During the second half of the season, Graham Mertz experienced things he’ll try to avoid for the rest of career:
The University of Wisconsin freshman quarterback has been a backup all year, but he had weeks in which he took a lot of first-team snaps during practice. Mertz did so as starting quarterback Jack Coan battled through injuries. None of Coan’s injuries kept him from missing a start or were disclosed on team-issued status reports, so Mertz’s increased workload just went to give him more experience.
But it also showed Joe Rudolph, the Badgers’ offensive coordinator, that Mertz was a viable option to start if Coan couldn’t play.
“I thought (Mertz) just did an outstanding job of preparing,’’ Rudolph said. “I saw his confidence level improve tremendously. I thought how he handled the huddle, how he handled everyone at the line of scrimmage, how he prepared, I saw all those things kind of come together for him. And I told him those weeks, ‘If you’ve got to go, you’re ready, you’re prepared that way.’ I could see it. I could see his development.
“It was fun to see that in him and I think he was proud of those steps he made from earlier weeks to where he was then, just through the experience of going through it.”
Mertz said he got the most practice snaps with the starting unit the week the Badgers were preparing to play Iowa on Nov. 9. Quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr said Mertz learned how the week of preparation broke down for a starting quarterback, how each day was used to emphasize different aspects of the game plan.
“It’s great to get in there and get some (No.) 1 reps and feeling confident with the (No.) 1 group,” Mertz said. “It meant a lot for my growth.”
Junior center Tyler Biadasz, a unanimous All-American this year, said he saw Mertz’s confidence blossom in the huddle. Biadasz said he could tell Mertz had a better understanding of the playbook as the season went along.
“He’s just grown. He’s grown up as a quarterback, you can see it in his approach and how he goes about things. He’s more comfortable in the pocket. He definitely is throwing it better, too. He’s just been consistently growing a little bit and that’s what you want,” Biadasz said.
Budmayr said he wasn’t surprised that Mertz was ready to play this season.
“Graham’s very talented. I think the way he approaches it is the right way, he wants to learn and get better. To be honest with you, it’s kind of a testament to the room, because we’re a young room,” he said. “They’re highly competitive in the way they approach it.”
Mertz played in two games this season — mop-up duty in non-conference blowouts against Central Michigan on Sept. 7 and Kent State on Oct. 5. The Overland Park, Kansas, product is 9-for-10 passing for 73 yards this season. Mertz, along with redshirt freshman Chase Wolf, has been listed as Coan’s backup throughout the year.
Mertz has been getting an extended experience in his first season, as the Badgers made the Big Ten Championship Game and take on Oregon in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday.
“When you can play Ohio State two times in one year, it’s pretty cool to go against those guys. That’s an NFL defense you’re going up against, so it’s great to have that growth. Same thing with Oregon. It’s been great to have those extra practices and really grow in addition to the (regular season),” Mertz said.
Rudolph, who played in the 1994 Rose Bowl for UW, said it’s difficult to quantify just what a player gains from being along for the ride for a postseason run like the Badgers are on. But he said Mertz could see how other players prepare for games of this magnitude.
“I think when guys get an experience like that and they see how guys around them approach it, you learn something from everyone. And he might learn something from what (running back Jonathan Taylor) does as much as he learns from what maybe Jack does, as well as what Tyler Biadasz does. And just how guys deal with certain things, how they prepare themselves and take care of themselves,” Rudolph said.
Going forward, Mertz said he wants to compete to play more or possibly start.
To do that, he thinks he needs to learn the protection schemes more clearly, which means getting together with Rudolph often.
“I want to master protections,” Mertz said. “Knowing where I’m going to be protected at all times. Once I get that out of the way, I can focus on everybody else.”
Badgers vs. Oregon: Who has the edge?
Badgers must corral Oregon senior quarterback Justin Herbert in Rose Bowl
PASADENA, Calif. — Justin Herbert’s attitude screams quarterback, even when he’s not in his helmet and shoulder pads.
From how he sits — straight up and assertive — and fields questions, the direct answers he provides and how he commands a crowd, it makes sense he’s a person his Oregon football teammates follow. His attitude and strong play on the field have led the No. 7 Ducks (11-2) to the Rose Bowl against the University of Wisconsin (10-3) and have him rated among the top quarterback prospects in this spring’s NFL draft.
His reverence for his role on the team is a major reason why he didn’t think about sitting out this game like a number of highly-regarded college players have in recent seasons.
“This is the Rose Bowl. This is everything we’ve ever been working for,” Herbert said. “It never crossed my mind, and I don’t think it ever crossed anyone else’s mind on our team. We’re so excited, and this is such a great opportunity for our team and our program.”
Discussion of his NFL future has followed Herbert the past two seasons. He would’ve likely been a first- or second-round pick if he entered the draft after last season, but he chose to come back for his senior year.
According to his teammates, Herbert downplays what could be next for him.
“To be honest, you wouldn’t even notice he’s a guy like that or focused on the NFL,” running back CJ Verdell said. “It’s about us and about this team, and about whatever he can do to be most ready for the games.”
The Rose Bowl will be the last game at Oregon for Herbert and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, who accepted the head coaching job at UNLV. Arroyo, who has been the coordinator or co-coordinator at Oregon the past three seasons, spent 2014 as the quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Arroyo said Herbert has developed NFL qualities in the way he processes the game.
“The game slows down every year for a quarterback. And I think that people saw that come to light in regards to making decisions and seeing the field and working together with different guys and different timing,” Arroyo said.
“He’s been fortunate to be around a lot of these guys for that many years. He’s had to work with some new guys throughout the course of the season and through injuries and that happens. I think that he’s done a great job of growing and understanding protections and fronts and understanding down and distance, situational football, things that will help him not only this week but in the future.”
Herbert — a native of Eugene, the town Oregon’s campus is located — has started for four years. His 3,333 passing yards and 32 touchdowns this season are both career highs, and he’s been particularly good in big moments. He had four TD passes at Washington; completed 80.8 percent of his passes and had three scores at USC; and played a big role as a rusher to help the blowout victory against Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The Badgers have played their fair share of experienced quarterbacks this season. Michigan’s Shea Patterson, Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke and Iowa’s Nate Stanley were all in the third or fourth year as a starter when they lined up against UW.
That experience means tricking Herbert with schemes will be difficult, so execution becomes even more important.
“They make better decisions, they’re very mature,” cornerback Faion Hicks said of playing veteran quarterbacks. “He could’ve left last year. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. It’s hard with him. He does a good job going through his progressions — that’s really what sticks out the most to me.”
Herbert’s ability to run was a key part of Oregon’s game plan in its last game, a win over the Utes to clinch a spot in the Rose Bowl. He had 35 yards on seven carries, but two of those rushes went for first downs and three others set up short-yardage situations. His willingness to keep the ball on read options got Utah off balance and Verdell ended up tallying 208 yards and three scores.
Herbert — listed at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds — isn’t the big-play rushing threat Ohio State’s Justin Fields or Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez are, but UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said Herbert gets back-breaking first downs that can wear a team out.
“He’s more athletic and he can run a little better than teams give him credit for,” Leonhard said. “Anytime you can have a great call … anytime an outside linebacker wins on a pass rush and (Herbert) steps up and runs for a first down, you’ve got him beat and then it is a little bit demoralizing for a defense.”
Herbert said he knows he’s in for a challenge with the UW defense, a unit he calls “as good as they come.” But he’s looking to put an exclamation point on a strong career at Oregon with a good game in the Rose Bowl.
“This is everything that I ever hoped for,” he said. “This is the experience that we wanted when a lot of us decided to come back, and this is the potential that I knew our team had. It’s just been so much fun, and it’s been such a great year, and it’s exactly the reason why I came back.”
A look back: Badgers’ history in Rose Bowl
Badgers' Chris Orr poised for big finish in Rose Bowl
PASADENA, Calif. — Chris Orr doesn’t get nervous for football games.
Part of that is preparation, as the University of Wisconsin’s senior inside linebacker knows how to study film and get himself ready for an opponent. Part of that is confidence, as he’s wrapping up the best season of his college football career at the Rose Bowl when he and the Badgers (10-3) take on Oregon (11-2) on Wednesday.
He even said that he doesn’t think the emotions of playing in his final collegiate game this week will hit him until after the game ends.
But something Orr did earlier this month had him shaking in his shoes — he proposed to his girlfriend of 2½ years, Thalia.
“You’d have thought I was playing in the Super Bowl if you saw me then. My heart was beating out of my chest,” he said.
After a celebratory dinner following Orr’s Master’s graduation ceremony, he popped the question on the Capitol Square. Teammate Zack Baun was hiding nearby with his girlfriend, Ali, a photographer who captured the moment. Orr knew Thalia would say yes, but that didn’t quite quell the nerves.
“I knew the outcome, but still, I don’t know why, but my heart was jumping out my chest,” Orr said. “I knew that I didn’t want to go through life without her knowing I’m definitely going to marry you. Definitely can’t envision life without her. Felt like there was no need for me to wait any longer; if you know that you want to do something, why wait? So I just went ahead and did it.”
Orr has been one of UW’s best defensive players all season, tied for the team lead in tackles (72) and second in sacks with 11½. UW coach Paul Chryst said he’s taken joy in seeing Orr develop throughout his career.
“It’s the best part of coaching, is seeing how players progress and grow. So many people just see the small part, the Saturdays in the fall. What he’s done and how he’s gone about it, it truly is the best part of coaching. I feel truly fortunate to have had our paths cross and to be around him,” Chryst said.
“Hopefully the program’s done something for him, but I know he’s given so much to the program and we’re all going to be better long after he leaves because we’ve been impacted by him.”
One of Orr’s biggest impacts on the field this season has been as a pass rusher. He entered this year with 2½ career sacks, but defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has utilized Orr’s skills of getting after the passer from his inside linebacker position. He’s causing havoc without getting the quarterback down, too — his eight quarterback hurries are second to Baun’s 10.
It’s not something Orr expected to happen, but it has been a game-changer for the Badgers’ defense. It has prevented teams from loading up against Baun on the edge, helping him become an All-American. It has also caused confusion along opponents’ fronts as they try to account for Orr.
“I think it just added an extra dynamic to our defense. It makes it (so) you don’t know who’s coming. Third down, you see the offenses get a little fear in their eyes, get a little panic, of not knowing exactly who’s coming because everybody has gotten a sack,” Orr said.
His increased load as a pass rusher has also altered how he prepares for games.
“I spend a little more time studying the guards and the centers and how they are in pass pro, even how the running backs are in pass pro. What moves work well against them? Is it speed? Is it power? Is it an in-and-out move? Whatever the case is,” he said.
“And then I also spend time viewing how the offensive line works together. Do they pass off stuff easily? Are they fluid in their movement? How can I spot the quickest path to the quarterback?”
Orr has three multi-sack games this year, and had at least a half a sack in seven of nine Big Ten Conference games. He was held without a sack in the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State, when he was out of the final 36 minutes, 32 seconds of the game due to a concussion.
He said it was “demoralizing” to not be able to help his teammates finish the game — one in which the Badgers led 21-7 at halftime. Orr’s absence was notable because Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was able to buy more time to throw and that doomed the Badgers in the second half.
Orr passed all post-concussion tests the next day and said he’s been fine since the night of the injury.
He knows that getting through Oregon’s stout offensive line and putting pressure on Ducks senior quarterback Justin Herbert will be a challenge, but will be key to UW snapping its three-game losing streak in the Rose Bowl.
“They’re athletic, they have strong hands — they all have a good strike. When they get their hands on you, it’s hard to escape. You see guys struggling to tear off,” Orr said.
Winning a Rose Bowl would be a crowning achievement on a banner year — and month — for Orr.
While it may already be set because of his post-Minnesota-game quotes about Paul Bunyan’s Axe, Orr knows a good showing in the Rose Bowl can cement a legacy at UW. But he said he hopes he’s remembered for his positivity first and foremost.
“I want people to remember me for being a fun-loving guy all the time, and a really good football player,” he said. “I want them to envision me more so for always having a smile on my face no matter what.”
A look back: Badgers’ history in the Rose Bowl
Badgers brace for Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux
LOS ANGELES — Kayvon Thibodeaux wears his origin on his left arm.
The tattoo depicts part of what the Oregon freshman defensive end saw growing up in Los Angeles. Palm trees and the L.A. skyline sit atop the L.A. Dodgers’ logo in the image. He’s proud of where he’s from and what he’s accomplished in his first year with the program.
He said Friday at a news conference going to college was far from a given growing up.
“For me, college wasn’t even a dream,” Thibodeaux said. “I guess for a lot of kids that come from where I come from, you don’t even have the hopes for college.”
His journey through his first year as a college football player is about to come full circle when Oregon (11-2) takes on the University of Wisconsin (10-3) in the Rose Bowl. While Thibodeaux went to Oaks Christian High School in the L.A. suburb of Thousand Oaks, he was raised in South Central L.A. — across the street from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, he said.
He didn’t get to go to any Rose Bowls as a child, but he remembers seeing buses roll through his neighborhood filled with Rose Bowl-bound teams. This will be the second time this season Thibodeaux has played in the L.A. area, with the Ducks’ game at Southern Cal the first.
Thibodeaux was a prized recruit, the top-rated player in California and a top-10 prospect nationwide by the major recruiting services last year. He was the most heralded recruit in Oregon’s history. After enrolling early, he quickly made an impression.
“I think it was when we were doing some conditioning and he was running like a gazelle, and I was like, ‘Man, that kid is going to be special,’” senior inside linebacker Troy Dye said. “Because when you can run really well, you can practice well, you have good cardio, you are bound to make it.”
Junior safety Brady Breeze remembers the first snaps Thibodeaux took in a No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense setting. Thibodeaux bolted around the edge and would’ve sacked quarterback Justin Herbert in a game setting.
“It was like, ‘Wow, dude, he just put a move on one of our linemen,’” Breeze said. “The guy is a baller. He’s somebody we’re proud of.”
Thibodeaux has played in all 13 games, with five starts, for the Ducks; he’s listed as a starter for the Rose Bowl. His nine sacks are a program record for a freshman, and he has 14 tackles for loss. He’s been especially productive in the past four games, accounting for 5½ of his sacks in that stretch, and had the best game of his career against Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Against the Utes, Thibodeaux had 2½ sacks, five tackles and he blocked a punt. He was voted the Freshman Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12.
Thibodeaux said he was hesitant to start the year, not fully trusting himself in a new scheme and in the college setting. But once things clicked in the second half of the season, he became a game-changer.
“In the beginning of the year, I feel like I didn’t contribute enough,” he said. “There was a lot more I could’ve done. I was kind of hesitant because of the (starting) situation and I didn’t really know about college football. As the season went on I got more confident and I was able to just play the game.”
Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos knew he had a special athlete on his hands when he saw how Thibodeaux — listed at 6-foot-5 and 242 pounds — got off the ball. The quickness of his movements on the snap were rare, Avalos said. Thibodeaux just needed to find ways to refine those raw traits.
Thibodeaux was active in trying to find ways to improve. Dye said Thibodeaux was consistently getting extra work before and after workouts and practices, going through hand-fighting and footwork drills.
“When a young guy is doing that at 18 years old, you can tell they’ll have a really good career because if you’re starting off young like that with that work ethic, it’ll last for the rest of your life,” Dye said.
UW has seen its share of great defensive ends this season. To name a few: Ohio State’s Chase Young, whom the Badgers played twice, was a Heisman Trophy finalist; Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa is slated to go in the first round of the NFL draft; and Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes is expected to be a mid-to-late-round NFL draft pick.
But the Badgers know Thibodeaux presents unique challenges because of how the Ducks shift their defense before the snap.
“They’re probably the most aggressive defense we’ve seen all year, with different shifts and different disguises and things like that and how multiple they can be with their fronts,” running back Garrett Groshek said. “In the Big Ten, you weren’t getting as much shifting and things like that where they do a lot of it. And it makes you be honest and having to watch the extra film to see if there’s any keys or anything like that to what they’re doing.”
Keeping quarterback Jack Coan clean has been one of UW’s best attributes this season. The offensive line has allowed 20 sacks and just five multi-sack games, two of which came against Ohio State.
The Badgers need to keep Thibodeaux away from Coan as much as possible and keep him from reaching a pair of goals he’s set for himself — notching a 10th sack on the season and breaking the Rose Bowl record with more than three sacks in the game.
“God willing, I’ll try to break it,” he said.
Preview: Three keys to Badgers’ success in the Rose Bowl
Jack Coan's roots in lacrosse serve him well as Badgers' quarterback
LOS ANGELES — Jack Coan dropped back to pass on the final play of the Big Ten Championship Game and didn’t see an open target.
The game was already over — the University of Wisconsin football team was down two scores with the final seconds ticking off the clock — but Coan, a junior quarterback, was still trying to make a play. He scrambled to his right and tried to make his way to the end zone. He was stopped 3 yards short by a walloping hit from Ohio State safety Josh Proctor.
It was the kind of hit few quarterbacks can take in stride, and it sparked some discussion online about whether Proctor should’ve been penalized for targeting.
Coan was only down for second or two before getting back to his feet.
Christian Doller didn’t see the play in question, he but wasn’t surprised to hear about it. Doller, the Sayville (New York) High School lacrosse coach, knew about Coan’s toughness well before Coan was the quarterback getting ready to lead his team to the Rose Bowl against Oregon.
“When he played, he was younger. He started for me in ninth grade on the varsity team. We had a good, physical team. And he was tall. People didn’t want to see him getting his, or do well,” Doller said. “If you can’t get the ball from them, then they’re just trying to hit people. He got his share. He was younger than everybody, he’d get knocked down, but he bounced back every time. That’s where the physicality in football helps, because mentally, you just don’t stay down.”
Coan becoming a Division I quarterback was unheard of in his hometown of Sayville, a hamlet on the southern end of Long Island. Like the majority of the boys his age, he grew up playing lacrosse and football, and his lacrosse skills developed quickly.
After Coan’s freshman lacrosse season, he was garnering college programs’ attention, and he orally committed to play at Notre Dame.
“It was good to be running around and making plays. Lacrosse is just a really fun game. I feel like it’s a combination of all different sports, and playing with a bunch of guys that I grew up with, it was pretty fun,” Coan said.
Coan said football was always his greater passion. But a substantial factor in Coan’s decision to commit to a college lacrosse opportunity was that football recruiters rarely, if ever, came to Long Island to find players.
His football coach at Sayville, Rob Hoss, hounded college football coaches to watch tape on Coan, whose size, intelligence and arm talent were worthy of a scholarship.
One can see the evidence of Coan’s lacrosse roots on the football field. Coan has shown toughness when hit, and the ability to take a hit in order to deliver a pass when he needs to. Even his quick throwing motion is similar to the mechanics of a lacrosse shot, Doller said.
“I’d say it’s similar in the way that a quarterback distributes the ball to other guys, and sometimes has to run around and make plays. Lacrosse, that’s all it is, just running around and finding open guys or scoring yourself,” Coan said.
Doller has seen the crossover between quarterback and lacrosse player be a successful one throughout his tenure at Sayville. Coan set scoring and assist records while at Sayville, and they’ve since been broken by other quarterbacks who hit the lacrosse fields in the spring.
“I tell the football guys, all the guys really, the most successful lacrosse players are all quarterbacks at heart. Their minds have to work like a quarterback, because things are moving so fast. While you’re running with the ball, people are coming at you, you have to see the field,” Doller said.
Doller put Coan in what he called the ‘X’ position on the lacrosse field — a spot where he’d get the ball behind the goal, read the defense and decide whether to attack with a shot or draw defenders to him before making a pass.
“The guys are coming to crush you and you’ve got to get the ball and pass it quickly,” Doller said.
Coan passed on his senior year of lacrosse to enroll early at UW. He earned the starting job this season after getting his first handful of starts last season when Alex Hornibrook suffered a concussion.
Now, days away from taking snaps at the Rose Bowl, Doller said he never could’ve imagined he’d see Coan at this level.
“It’s a little surreal. I’ve known the kid since he was like 6 years old. Then to see him on that stage … and honestly, I’ll say it again, a stage I didn’t think our guys from Long Island obtain. It just didn’t happen,” Doller said. “When I see him, I’m rooting for him and I’m proud.”
A look back: Badgers’ history in the Rose Bowl
Outside linebackers Tyler Johnson, Christian Bell become factors in limited appearances
Patience is one of the toughest virtues to follow in college football.
With short careers and chances to play condensed to about a dozen weeks in the fall and winter, waiting your turn isn’t the easiest task to accomplish.
But two players on the University of Wisconsin football team — outside linebackers Tyler Johnson and Christian Bell — set an example of how to use the time they weren’t in the playing rotation. Their work in practice helped pave a way to consistent reps in the final month of the year, and they made plays when they got their chances.
As No. 11 UW (10-3) gets set to take on No. 7 Oregon (11-2) in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, Johnson and Bell are in the mix for a front seven that has to find a way to slow down the Ducks’ strong running attack.
“It’s cool to see that,” senior outside linebacker Zack Baun said. “Those guys have been here all season. Bell was on scout team for a little bit, but his effort never went away. He’s really taken advantage of the opportunity that coach has given him, same with Tyler Johnson. A veteran guy that really knows his stuff and knows the defense. He’s able to make plays.”
Johnson, a senior from Menasha, has been in this role for the majority of his career. After redshirting in 2015, he’s appeared in 44 games but started just two last season when a rash of injuries struck the linebackers. Still, he’s shown a knack for making things happen in limited snaps.
He forced fumbles in back-to-back weeks in 2017, against Illinois and Indiana, with his strip against the latter igniting a blowout win. Last season, he had one of his best games against Nebraska, producing five total tackles, 2½ for loss, and a forced fumble.
“I think that’s kind of been Tyler’s niche and role,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “He’s obviously very accountable, dependable, which gives him a chance. You can trust him. He finds a way to make plays.”
He started seeing more regular playing time after UW’s bye week at the beginning of November and again made his presence felt against Nebraska with three tackles and a sack. He played 15 snaps against Minnesota and recovered a fumble that set up UW’s final touchdown.
As the Badgers prepared for No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, Johnson knew he’d be in the rotation, but he was used extensively when junior Noah Burks went out with a left leg injury. He played 45 snaps and had a tackle.
“It’s definitely a good feeling,” Johnson said. “Anytime you can help the team, it always feels good helping your brothers be successful. I think the biggest thing is just always staying ready. Coaches have confidence in you to put you on the field, you’ve got to be ready to seize the opportunity.”
That’s not always easy, especially as an older player, Johnson said. But seeing the Badgers have success made waiting for his chance more palatable.
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said one of Johnson’s best traits is his knowledge of the scheme.
“He’s always a guy who is going to be right,” Leonhard said. “He knows his job, he understands what he’s got to do. He knows himself, he knows what his strengths and limitations are. He always finds him way around the football,
“It’s been huge to be able to add him a little bit more to that rotation, take some snaps off of Noah, take some snaps off of Zack Baun and still get big production. It’s fun to watch him. He’s playing with great energy. He realizes this is close to the end of his Badger career. The urgency he’s playing with, and the fun, you can see it in his eyes, he’s having a blast every week. It’s always fun to see seniors play great ball.”
Bell, a junior from Birmingham, Alabama, brings a unique physicality to the position. At 6-foot-4 and 249 pounds, Bell is the heaviest outside linebacker on the squad and one of the tallest.
He’s played in five games this season, and got a sack on a fourth-down play against Purdue last month. He had a tackle in 11 snaps against Minnesota and two in 24 snaps against Ohio State.
It took him a while to find his lane his year; he didn’t play for the middle two months of the season. Leonhard said Bell’s effort in practice earned him playing time, and he spoke to Bell in the week prior to the Purdue game and challenged him to take ownership of his role.
“We’re going to put you on the field to do well in a role that you can have success in, and for him, he can be a dynamic pass rusher for us, he has to be a physical presence because of his size and his strength,” Leonhard said. “I think he’s starting to figure that out for us, and that’s what was able to get him some snaps, and obviously a big play in the (Purdue) game.”
A look back: Wisconsin Badgers history in the Rose Bowl
UW's Barry Alvarez dismisses the notion that Rose Bowl means less since advent of College Football Playoff
The beauty of the scene hit Barry Alvarez hard the first time he saw it.
The field itself, the stadium surrounding it, the palm trees and the mountains in the background — all of it took the breath away from the University of Wisconsin athletic director when he was an assistant football coach for Iowa getting ready to play in the Rose Bowl.
“All of sudden you’re a quarter into the game as a player, and you realize, ‘Hell, we’re playing a game.’ And you better get that out of your system,” he said.
The Rose Bowl has become one of the defining aspects of Alvarez’s career. He has coached in it six times and was UW’s athletic director for two other trips to Pasadena, California. He was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2009, and has since seen four more of his teams earn spots in the game.
With the Badgers (10-3) preparing for another Rose Bowl — this one against Oregon (11-2) — Alvarez dismissed the notion the game has lost meaning since the institution of the College Football Playoff.
“Those are people who have never been around the Rose Bowl and haven’t invested a whole lot in football. Playing in the Rose Bowl is really important and it’s one of the greatest experiences our players will have. It’s an honor. Anybody who would say that has never been involved in football in any capacity,” Alvarez said.
It took three tries for Alvarez to get his first win in the sport’s longest-running bowl game. Iowa, with Alvarez as its linebackers coach, lost to Washington in 1982 and to UCLA in 1986.
It was those early experiences Alvarez says helped him learn how to manage the trip to the Rose Bowl and all that comes with it.
“One of the things that I felt was necessary early on, before the game, you have to get your players into the stadium and see the field and see the venue. See the mountains, see the three palm trees over the scoreboard. Experience that before the game so you can go out there and play football,” he said.
In 1994, his first appearance in Pasadena as the Badgers’ coach, UW held off UCLA’s late charge to win 21-16 and claim the program’s first Rose Bowl victory. Led by running back Ron Dayne, Alvarez and the Badgers won back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1999 and 2000, over UCLA and Stanford, respectively — arguably the high water mark in program history.
Alvarez also coached the Badgers in the 2013 Rose Bowl, serving as interim coach after coach Bret Bielema announced he was leaving for Arkansas. The Badgers lost to Stanford in that game.
This year’s Badgers, while not the Big Ten Conference champions, bear some resemblance to the school’s 1999 and 2000 Rose Bowl teams.
Led by junior tailback Jonathan Taylor — who became the program’s first back-to-back Doak Walker Award winner earlier this month — and a strong defense, the Badgers were able to rebound from consecutive October losses to get the Big Ten’s bid into the Rose Bowl.
Taylor led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 26 total touchdowns and was second in rushing yards with 1,909. He said the team wants to turn the tide of UW’s recent trips to the Rose Bowl, which include losses in 2011, ‘12 and ‘13.
“It means a lot as a program. Just that tradition that we have here, we’re looking to go in there and make sure we bring one home for the UW alumni base. It’s been over 20 years since we went there and won,” Taylor said.
UW’s 10 wins in the regular season marked a step forward after an inconsistent and frustrating 2018 regular season that ended 7-5.
Alvarez said the Badgers’ win over Miami (Fla.) in last season’s Pinstripe Bowl was a jumping-off point that helped get this season off on the right track, and was an example of how bowl games are important for the programs who play in them.
“People are diminishing bowl games, but they can really help your football team,” Alvarez said.
“I think last year, the game really helped boost our kids, gave them confidence and led us into this season and gave us momentum going into the offseason. Let a lot of the young guys play and have success. I think it’s important that you make the bowl game … you make it important. (UW coach) Paul (Chryst) did a great job making the game important and the kids had a good experience. A lot of people don’t do that, they don’t understand that.
“This is a little different bowl, you’re going to the Rose Bowl. It’s not chopped liver. This is top-drawer now, this is big-time, and you’re playing a big-time opponent that’s ranked higher than you. It’s going to be a challenge, and you want to prepare like you’re preparing for Ohio State and the championship game. It’s really important.”
<&rdpStrong>A look back: Badgers’ history in the Rose Bowl</&rdpStrong>
With the University of Wisconsin set to face the Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, take a look back at the images former Wiscon…