LOS ANGELES -- When he first got into coaching, Jim Harbaugh used to talk about conversations he had with his former Michigan coach, Bo Schembechler, regarding how he wanted to run an offense. How would he use the tight end, Schembechler would ask. Would he use double tights? Would the fullback and tight end work in conjunction? The answers were: A lot, yes and yes. It was vintage Big Ten thinking through and through.
True, the 2012 edition of Stanford that will take the field Tuesday against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio might have a healthy dusting of a classic Big Ten team; run the football, stop the run. In the offense-happy Pac-12, that breaks the mold a bit. But just because you want to run the ball and stop the run first and foremost doesn’t mean you fall into into any stereotypical classification.
“That’s just football,” Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. “I don’t know if that’s a traditional Big Ten team or not. To me, that’s just how you play football.”
Spoken like a veteran Big Ten coach.
The Cardinal play a brand of ball that does seem better suited for the Schembechler days than the modern spread, chuck-it-around game. But it works for them -- as evidenced by their third straight appearance in a BCS bowl game and 2012 Pac-12 championship. And that’s all that matters.
“Growing up and watching a lot of Big Ten football, it’s run the football, defend the run and do everything else after that,” Stanford defensive end and Wisconsin native Ben Gardner said. “That’s basically what we do. It’s what we’ve done for the last few years. It’s a little different now without Andrew Luck playing quarterback. But we still feel like we’ve got the playmakers on offense to have a passing game and add that dimension. The basis of what we do is run the football and stop the run and that’s always what we do here.
“That’s what makes this a great matchup because that’s what Wisconsin does, too. And that’s been the style of football in the Big Ten. Coming from the Midwest I love it. It’s the kind of game I want to play and it’s the kind of game our defense wants to play. We couldn’t be more excited about it.”
When Harbaugh and current Stanford head coach David Shaw left the University of San Diego for The Farm, they started mapping out what they wanted the team to look like. Not just in 2007, but in 2012, ’13 and beyond.
“He asked me about [former coach] Denny Green,” Shaw recalled. “I said, well my dad was defensive coordinator. We played great defense. We had great athletes on offense that we moved to defense and we had Tommy Vardell on the offensive side and Ed McCaffrey. So at the time we had the biggest offensive line in college football in the early ‘90s and that was Jim’s mentality. I told him it has worked at Stanford before.
“We talked about how it came with recruiting and it seemed like a perfect fit. When everybody else was running sideways in the conference, we started running north and south with really big guys and physical guys like Toby Gerhart, Jimmy Dray blocking on the right side. There were just so many things that fit perfectly and we’ve been able to continue to recruit to what we want to do.”
But there are limitations to just how “Big Ten” Stanford can really be. Because it doesn’t play in the Big Ten. It plays in the Pac-12, where stud wide receivers are plentiful, quarterbacks are slingers and half the teams have a 1,000-yard rusher. So simply stopping the run isn’t good enough.
“I think it's a fair comparison [to the Big Ten] when you talk about the style of ball,” Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said. “Defensively we're predicated on stopping the run. Most of the Big Ten is predicated on stopping the run. But I think the comparison probably stops there. We still generally have to defend the pass because everybody in our conference, when you talk about SC or UCLA or talk about Arizona, when you talk about Washington State and what [Mike] Leach is doing up there in Washington, there is not a team in the Pac-12 that doesn't have a receiver that can go get them in the distance.
“…It is blue collar, and that's what we want to be," Mason continued. "We try to recruit to who we are. We can't be like the rest of the other teams in the Pac-12. Don't want to be. Coach Shaw made that clear when he took over. We're going to be us and continue to do what we do and I think that served us well. So we're going to stay in our mold, and hopefully that continues to be a great brand of football.”