Dec. 31, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
LOS ANGELES -- James White has never had a problem being Robin to Batman.
In fact, he has even joked about it with his roommate, Bruce Wayne, aka Montee Ball.
“You just have to stay grounded and focused and know your role on the team,’’ said White. “Nobody can complain, whether you’re a starter or backing up somebody.’’
“What helps us out is the chemistry that we have; just understanding everyone on this team has a role and not caring who gets the credit. That’s our formula here.
“Right now, my role is to be the backup. Whenever I get my opportunities, I try to make the most of them.’’
Consider: Wisconsin is 4-0 when White rushes for over 100 yards. Wisconsin is 0-5 when White rushes for less than 100 yards.
Coincidence? Compelling? Or not?
You be the judge.
At Oregon State, he had three carries for 11 yards.
At Nebraska, he had one carry for a minus-5.
Against Michigan State, he had seven carries for 16 yards.
Against Ohio State, he had eight carries for 33 yards.
Against Penn State, he had seven carries for 13 yards.
It’s pretty telling: White had just 26 carries for 68 yards in those five losses combined.
By contrast, the Badgers are 7-0 when Ball and White have each rushed for over 100 yards in the same game over the last three seasons, including 4-0 this year.
The numbers clearly speak to White’s value and impact as far as putting additional pressure on a defense beyond what is exerted by Ball, the Doak Walker Award winner.
If a two-headed tailback is better than one, what about a three-headed tailback? Melvin Gordon had 216 yards, Ball had 202 and White had 109 in the Big Ten title game.
Given the final result -- a 70-31 romp over Nebraska -- to what degree will the Badgers be able to utilize White and Gordon to complement Ball against Stanford in the Rose Bowl?
“James has got to get his touches,’’ said UW coach Barry Alvarez. “But 25 (Gordon) has got to get his touches, too. You want the ball in his hands. He’s on fire right now.
“Watching him practice the first day, I told Matt (Canada, the offensive coordinator) and Thomas (Hammock, the running back coach) to make sure he’s in the game plan.
“That’s a big son-of-a-gun who can really run. You want him touching the ball.’’
First things first: jump-starting White in Pasadena.
Ball rushed for 132 yards in Wisconsin’s 16-14 loss to TCU in the 2011 Rose Bowl. He had 164 in last season’s 45-38 loss to Oregon. White had only eight carries in each game.
“I have to make the most out of each and every opportunity when I do get a touch,’’ conceded White, whose longest run in the two Rose Bowls is just 8 yards.
“When I get the ball, I have to focus on getting four yards before getting 40. That’s something our coach (Hammock) mentions all the time. Try not to make too big of a play.’’
White has produced some big plays: 11 runs of 20 or more yards. He has not only caught a touchdown pass but he also has thrown for one as the Wildcat/Barge quarterback.
“I have to work on my spiral,’’ admitted White, who lobbed a 3-yard scoring pass to tight end Sam Arneson against Nebraska. “But at least I got it there.’’
The Badgers have tapped into White’s versatility with their equivalent of the Wildcat formation, which he ran with some success in high school. He’s comfortable in this role, too.
Especially when he’s taking the shotgun snap behind those seven offensive linemen.
“It’s a different wrinkle that teams have to adjust to,’’ White said.
That was echoed by center Travis Frederick.
“Teams are going to expect us to come out and run the ball,’’ he said. “There’s no secret about that. Doing this gives us the opportunity to throw the defense off guard.
“He (White) is a real shifty back there. When he gets the ball, he’s a little short and no one can see him behind all our big guys. He’s done a good job all year finding the holes.
“The really cool thing about that package is that it can open up anywhere. We could bounce it outside. We can go up the middle. Wherever there’s a crease, James will find it.
“He’s a tremendous running back with really great vision.’’
Opposing defenses have begun to adjust to the Barge.
“A lot of teams are starting to overload the unbalanced side,’’ White said. “I try to take a pre-snap read. But I still have to feel the play out and see where they’re flowing.’’
When White was asked if the Badgers have any more “trick’’ plays that they have yet to unveil, he said, “We have a lot of great plays. Some may not necessarily be tricks.’’
For the record, Wisconsin is 2-0 when either Ball or White throws for a touchdown. Ball completed a 25-yard scoring pass to Russell Wilson against Indiana last season.
But it’s their running, not their throwing, that has gotten Stanford’s attention.
“They definitely both have speed,’’ Cardinal safety Ed Reynolds said of Ball and White. “They’re both long striders. They look like they’re not moving very fast.
“But they’re putting grass behind them.’’
Stanford’s rushing defense is allowing on the average just 87 yards per game and 2.84 yards per carry. Only Alabama and BYU have given up fewer yards.
Oregon’s Kenjon Barner had 21 carries for 66 yards. USC’s Silas Redd had 13 carries for 17 yards. In the first UCLA game, the Cardinal held Johnathan Franklin to 65 yards.
Franklin, though, exploded for 194 yards in the Pac-12 championship game.
“They’re very disciplined and well-coached and they’re good athletes,’’ White said. “When me and Montee get one-on-one in the open field, we have to make big plays.’’
Ball is a two-time first-team All-American, but White is averaging more yards per rush during his career than any other tailback in Wisconsin history with a minimum of 300 carries.
White is averaging 6.17, which puts him ahead of Ron Dayne (5.84) and Ball (5.60).
“It’s definitely something to be proud of,’’ White said. “But I can’t keep it in the front of my head. That’s when you start thinking too hard and you don’t play as well.
“I’ve just go out there and try to run as hard as possible.’’
There’s no shortage of motivation for the UW running backs in the Rose Bowl, especially since White would love to give Ball an appropriate parting gift: a victory.
“We definitely want to go out with a bang,’’ White said. “This will be the last time me and Montee and Melvin will be on the field at the same time, so we want to have a great performance. We’ve formed a great brotherhood and friendship.’’
Alvarez has been preaching one thing since he took over as the interim coach.
“Let’s finish,’’ he has encouraged the players. “Everything you do, you finish.’’
Defensive end Brendan Kelly will get that chance -- to finish what he started as a college player -- thanks to the NCAA, which has granted him a sixth year of eligibility in 2013.
“I did kind of have a statistical probability that I would get it,’’ said Kelly, who appeared in only 11 games his first three seasons combined because of injuries.
“But you always have that question in the back of your mind, the what-if factor? I’m the type of kid who prays for the best, but you also have to plan for the worst.
“You want to always have a Plan B and other options open. I was trying to figure out, ‘If I don’t get this, what am I going to do? How are things going to work out?’’’
Now that he has gotten the answers, he stressed, “I’m pumped.’’
The Badgers will return their top eight defensive linemen next season.
Sizing up Kelly and David Gilbert, Alvarez said, “That’s what they’re supposed to look like. Brendan and David are good-looking bookends. Those two cats are good players.’’
They will have to be against Stanford’s power game, which features Ball’s Hollywood double in Stepfan Taylor and punishing offensive tackles in Cameron Fleming and David Yankey, a consensus All-American, who also lines up at guard.
“They’ve got a bunch of tough guys up front,’’ Kelly said. “The thing that we have to do is play fundamentally sound and with our hair on fire.
“It’s going to be won up front. This is one of those games where it’s going to be a fist fight and the tougher man is going to win.’’
Stanford’s mindset was best expressed by tight end Zach Ertz.
“They’re tough against power (sets),’’ he said of Wisconsin’s defense. “They see it every day in practice; they go against Montee Ball. So they’ve seen power before.
“But we’re going to stick to what we do, which is running power. I think both teams pride themselves on being physical. I know they do. They’ve got some big boys over there.
“So it’s going to be a battle in the trenches and we’re looking forward to it.’’
Ertz acknowledged that the Stanford offense has not faced defensive tackles as big as 319-pound Ethan Hemer and 335-pound Beau Allen. “They’ll be a good challenge,’’ he said.
So will UW’s third-down blitz package.
“That front is interesting,’’ Ertz confessed.
It gave Nebraska fits in the Big Ten championship game.
“You really don’t know who’s coming,’’ said Ertz, “or where they’re coming from.’’
Gilbert and Pat Muldoon are the only “down’’ linemen in three-point stances.
Both defensive ends are split wide.
“Then they’ve got all five guys walking around upright,’’ Ertz said.
Actually, it’s four guys: Kelly, Tyler Dippel, Mike Taylor and Chris Borland.
Some will rush, some will drop in coverage.
“It was our third-down scheme of the week,’’ said Gilbert.
The Badgers first used it against Ohio State and Braxton Miller.
“I really don’t understand it myself,’’ Gilbert said with a wry grin.
He was jesting. Sort of.
“I understand my responsibility,’’ he allowed. “My job is to do my job.’’
For Nebraska, it was called the “Indy’’ package.
For Stanford? “Maybe the Pasadena package,’’ Kelly volunteered.
The concepts are tweaked from opponent to opponent.
“We have designed calls,’’ Dippel said. “It was hard for Nebraska to tell what we were doing and where we were going. That’s the whole point of it.’’
The numbers tell the story.
The Cardinal had more tackles for loss (9.23 per game, 120 total) and quarterback sacks (4.31, 56) than anybody in the country. Eighteen different players have at least one TFL.
“#PartyInTheBackfield’’ is the hashtag on many of the D-line’s tweets.
Stanford had 15 TFLs against Washington State.
Here’s another extraordinary number: 8.
Oregon, Oregon State and Colorado combined for only “8’’ third-down conversions.
“They play in a league that is traditionally a heavier passing league,’’ Miller noted. “And they’re very good at what they do. They play hard and they blitz the edges.
“Anytime you’re putting enough pressure on the edges, you can collapse the pocket pretty quickly. And their front five is pressuring the pocket pretty hard.
“That pocket gets pretty small pretty quick. They use their hands well, so they’re able to shed blocks and get off people. They don’t do anything crazy. They just do it well.’’
You don’t have to look very far for the key to this type of matchup: power on power.
“It’s won in the trenches -- anyone who says otherwise is out of their mind,’’ Miller said. “That’s the name of the game. If you look at the teams in the upper echelon bowls -- year-in and year-out -- it’s the teams that run the physical, pro-style offenses.’’
Epitomizing that physicality is right guard Kyle Costigan, who has been playing at less than 100 percent since early in the season. Costigan didn’t play in the Big Ten title game.
“He’s moving much better,’’ Miller said. “He’s not having to tolerate as much pain every step. It’s still painful for him, but he’s much improved after a couple of weeks off.’’
Costigan’s last start was painful for everybody, a 24-21 overtime loss at Penn State.
“They never want to experience that feeling after Penn State again,’’ Miller said. “I certainly don’t either. But we made it right and look what happened the next week.’’
The Badgers scored 70 against Nebraska.
Miller couldn’t say enough about the resiliency of his linemen.
“I told our guys, ‘You will never forget this year and you shouldn’t,’’’ Miller said. “We’re going to finish it the right way and go out together one more time.’’
Alvarez has recommended Miller to new head coach Gary Andersen, who is still in the process of assembling his Badgers coaching staff.
Despite the uncertainty, Miller’s focus has been on his players, and Stanford.
“It’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster with emotions, highs and lows, peaks and valleys,’’ he said. “At the same time, I’ve got a great group of guys that made it easier on me as a rookie coach coming into the Big Ten. I’m so proud of the way they have played.’’
Now, there’s one final chapter to write to this season.
“We have a job to do,’’ Miller said. “These kids deserve a Rose Bowl championship.’’