It's been quite a month for the Wisconsin football team since they dismantled the Cornhuskers in the Big Ten Championship game December 1, filled with a change at head coach, assistants scrambling for other jobs and a living legend.
Even with all the distractions surrounding the program, it would be hard to imagine that this team won't be focused and ready for a talented Stanford team, especially since this team has overcome a multitude of other distractions throughout the year.
It will be key for the Badgers' offense to establish the run against the Cardinal in hope that it will open up the passing game. Wisconsin knows what to expect with the week leading up to the Rose Bowl so there will be nothing new for them. They've been through everything and you would hope and think that they can go out and simply play the game.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance from the Big Ten Championship game, expectations for the Rose Bowl and need. It was not easy determining who would be important in helping the Badgers to a victory against the Cardinal.
Last Week's Rankings in Parentheses
1, Montee Ball, RB (1) - Like always, the offense will start and finish with the run game. Barry Alvarez will try and get his Doak Walker winner the football early and often in hopes of getting Ball into an early rhythm. Even with Stanford losing starting defensive tackle and Pac 12 honorable mention Terrence Stephens for the Rose Bowl, the Cardinal will still find somebody to fill in for Stephens. Ball has played well in the last two Rose Bowls and with this being his final game, I'm sure he'll want to go out on top.
2, Chris Borland, MLB (5) - Borland could be used in multiple facets against the Cardinal. Not only will he start at middle linebacker but it'll be interesting to see if Alvarez decides to line him up at the defensive end spot, as well. Borland has been able to generate some pass rush so far this season being second on the team with 4.5 sacks and recorded 10 tackles for loss. With the Cardinal also having a strong run game, it will be important for Borland and the rest of the Badgers to be able to make plays in the backfield.
3, James White, RB (NR) - When White and Ball have success running the football it only means good things for the offense. At times this season, Ball and White have been the Badgers' best options on offense. It'll be interesting to see if Matt Canada decides to use the barge formation against Stanford to try and confused a team that is assignment sound and gap oriented.
4, Curt Phillips, QB (2) - Phillips will get the start in the Rose Bowl but it will be interesting to see how much of the playbook is open for him. The Stanford's secondary is the weakest part of its defense so it'll be interesting to see if Phillips airs it out or sticks to short intermediate throws. Phillips has done everything that has been asked of him and he has responded well each time. If Phillips can also extend plays with his legs, it'll give the wide receivers some time to get open or Phillips can keep it to see if he can pick up something himself.
5, David Gilbert, DE (3) - Gilbert has been coming on strong over the last three games - recording nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and has forced a fumble. Even if Gilbert hasn't been able to sack the quarterback, he has been consistently getting a strong pass rush, something that is going to have to continue in the Rose Bowl. Gilbert is probably the Badgers' most talented pass rusher on the team and it seems right now that he may be putting it together. If Gilbert can find his way into the Cardinal backfield, he should help slow down Stepfan Taylor.
6, Shelton Johnson, S, (NR) - Johnson will have an important job of making sure to keep contain and not to let tight end Zach Ertz go off in the game. Ertz leads the Cardinal with 66 catches for 837 yards and six touchdowns. If the Badgers can slow down the Cardinal running game, it will be important to make sure Ertz doesn't leave an imprint on the game. Johnson has been playing well since his injury and has done a good job in coverage with four pass break ups.
7, Melvin Gordon, RB (NR) - Like Borland, it will be interesting to see how Gordon is used after running the jet sweep to perfection against Nebraska. Gordon is at his best when he's out in space where he can use his speed and elusiveness. The one way Gordon could be used differently is if they try and get him involved in the passing game. Gordon hasn't made that huge of an impact in this area so far this season but may be as good of an option to try featuring his speed.
Others to Note
Linebacker Mike Taylor - Taylor will need to be active again on the defensive side of the ball, make plays in the backfield and be responsible of keeping track of Ertz. Taylor has been playing well as of late, recording 25 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks in his last three games. Taylor will have to serve as a leader on the defense to make sure the Badgers are ready for the opportunity.
Cornerback Marcus Cromartie - Cromartie didn't play well in the Rose Bowl a year ago but he's coming off of probably his best game of the year in the Big Ten Championship game. The key is for Cromartie to approach the Rose Bowl the same way he approached the Big Ten Championship game, as he has been able to improve each week throughout the season. If he was able to put together his best game of his career in a week, it'll be interesting to see what he can do with a month of preparation.
Tight End Jacob Pedersen - If Wisconsin sticks to short and intermediate passes, I could see Phillips trying to find Pedersen early in the game. If Pedersen can get into an offensive rhythm, he'll be able to help open up the run and some deeper throws as well. Phillips has tried to get Pedersen involved in the passing game since he's taken over at quarterback.
Wide Receiver Jared Abbrederis - Someone is going to have to step up in the passing game for the Badgers to have a chance. Abbrederis is the most likely candidate to get behind the Cardinal secondary. The key is can Phillips get him the football. Abbrederis may have to make some adjustments to the football or he'll have to make some spectacular catches. If the Badgers struggle to throw the football, they'll struggle in the game.
Quarterback Joel Stave - With Stave cleared to play in the Rose Bowl, it will be interesting to see how much action he gets in the game. You don't want to rattle Phillips confidence or take him out of a rhythm and rotating between two quarterbacks throughout the game will hurt the Badgers on offense. If Stave has success against the Cardinal secondary, Alvarez will have to decide how to balance the offense.