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Tom Oates: These Badgers, Ducks very different than the teams that met in 2012 Rose Bowl
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Tom Oates: These Badgers, Ducks very different than the teams that met in 2012 Rose Bowl

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Chris Orr photo

"This (Oregon) team wants to be physical," Badgers 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."

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?

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.

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