Oregon vs. Wisconsin: Our beat writers provide answers
By JASON VONDERSMITH and STEPHEN ALEXANDER
The first thing we saw as our plane approached LAX on Monday was the Hollywood sign engraved on Mount Lee.
Just a stone's throw away from Pasadena, where Oregon and Wisconsin will face each other in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, Los Angeles is a city of dreams realized and failures beyond comprehension.
We will be in L.A. all week to report on all of the news leading up to 'the granddaddy of them all.'
In just a few days, we will know which team will finish the season with a Hollywood ending and its heroes walking off triumphantly into the sunset, and which team will end the season like a Hollywood tragedy, with the camera slowly panning on the heroes' dejected faces.
For now, we offer you our thoughts heading into the week:
Q. What is your first take on the 2012 Rose Bowl?
Vondersmith: Originally, I envisioned Wisconsin having the offensive tools (QB Russell Wilson, RB Montee Ball, WR Nick Toon, big offensive line, ball control) to beat the Ducks. After watching the Big Ten championship game and Wisconsin's defense against Michigan State, I think the Ducks could blow them out with their offensive speed and execution.
Alexander: It is going to break down one of two ways: either Wisconsin is like Stanford in 2011 or Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl. The question is, are the Badgers bigger than they are slow? If Wisconsin's size cancels out its lack of speed, the Badgers can control time of possession and keep Oregon off the field. If not, Oregon will run roughshod over them.
Q. Can Oregon stop Wisconsin's two-headed offensive monster of Ball and Wilson?
Vondersmith: The Ducks can contain them, because of their defensive speed; in a game in which I see the Oregon offense having its way, the Duck defense only needs to get key stops.
Alexander: I see the Ducks being able to shut down one player, but not both. It's pick your poison with Wisconsin.
Q. Can Wisconsin's defense handle Oregon's offensive speed?
Vondersmith: No way. Ohio State, Auburn, LSU and USC - the only teams to beat Oregon in the past 27 games - had big and athletic defensive players who had closing speed. Again, I don't see enough speed on Wisconsin, and Oregon usually tears apart teams without speed. If Wisconsin's D-line can make an impact, it could be a different story.
Alexander: The key for Wisconsin will be to not allow Oregon to use its speed. If the Badgers can dominate the line of scrimmage, shut down the run game and put Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas under pressure, Oregon's speed will not matter.
Q. Junior running back LaMichael James could be facing his last game with the Ducks, if he declares for the NFL draft. How much will Oregon winning or losing impact his legacy?
Vondersmith: He'll be a record-setting running back in a great offensive system that helped Oregon win three consecutive conference championships. So he'll be remembered well. But QB Joey Harrington and others won three bowl games in their careers.
Alexander: If this is James' last game, it will be one of the cornerstones of his legacy with the Ducks. Should Oregon lose, James will be remembered as the running back that put up big numbers during the season and couldn't get it done when all the chips were on the table.
Q. Who will be the difference-maker for the Badgers?
Vondersmith: Wilson is highly efficient and accurate, and athletic enough to make the Ducks play honestly. The Ducks will want to get in his face, while slowing down Ball. But Wilson could be the third of three QBs to hurt the Ducks in BCS games. If the Badgers get the run-pass balance going, watch out.
Alexander: While everyone will be watching Wilson and Ball, I will be looking at the big uglies on the Wisconsin offensive line. If the Ducks' defensive line is unable to get any traction against the Wisconsin O-line that averages 6-5 and 323 pounds across the board, the Badgers will be able to do just about anything they want.
Q. Who will be the difference-maker for the Ducks?
Vondersmith: It's too easy to say QB Darron Thomas and/or James, but I'm thinking it's a receiver (Josh Huff?) and/or a tight end (David Paulson?).
Alexander: Slash player De'Anthony Thomas. The true freshman is a firecracker attached to a stick of dynamite with the ball in his hands. He has the ability to take the ball to the house on any given play. But, Thomas - like many true freshmen - also has a habit of putting the rock on the ground, like he did against LSU.
Q. How important will Chip Kelly be in the outcome of the game?
Vondersmith: It's players who make the plays. It's their game. But it is Kelly's offense, and whenever the Ducks get opponents on their heels, Kelly usually pushes the right buttons to exploit and punish them. Again, if the Ducks get their running game going, we could be looking at 50 points and 500 yards.
Alexander: Having Kelly as a coach is like having pocket aces in Texas Hold'em. Players play the game, but Kelly is the most dangerous weapon on either team.
Q. The Rose Bowl may be the 'granddaddy of them all,' but were the Big Ten and the Pac-12 really up to snuff this year?
Vondersmith: I don't think the Pac-12 has been formidable at all during Oregon's three-year run of championships. It's Oregon, Stanford and USC, and then mediocrity. I actually think the Big Ten was better than the Pac-12. I'd rank the Big Ten third and Pac-12 fourth behind the SEC and Big 12 among big conferences.
Alexander: The quality of both leagues is down this season. When you take away a conference's traditional power (USC of the Pac-12 and Ohio State of the Big Ten) the quality of the entire league suffers all the way down the ranks. I will not argue that Oregon and Wisconsin are unworthy champions. But neither team was met with much in-league resistance on the way to Pasadena.
Q. Russell Wilson is getting most of the attention. Can Darron Thomas outshine him?
Vondersmith: Yeah, if the Ducks get their running game going, Thomas could have a huge game with a bevy of big plays and TD passes.
Alexander: No. But Thomas does not need to outshine Wilson. What Thomas must do is play within himself and within his role on the team. He does not need to take over the game. With the weapons Thomas has around him, he just needs to have a solid performance.
Q. The Ducks have lost two consecutive BCS games. Is there more pressure on them to win this game?
Vondersmith: Definitely. Can you imagine the Ducks losing their third consecutive BCS game, and the national banter that would go with it? For the esteem of the program, the Ducks must win this game.
Alexander: Pressure in sports is all relative. Both teams are facing the pressure of ending their season on a very sour note if they lose. I have heard a lot of talk about the Ducks going into this game with a stronger desire to win because of the last two losses. But come on. Should we really believe that Oregon wants to win this game more than it wanted to win the national championship? I don't think so. I don't think the Ducks want to win it any less, either.