LOS ANGELES — Their presence at the 99th edition of the Rose Bowl has been notable not because of their size but their star-appeal. They are beloved not for scoring touchdowns, but for blocking for them.
They are the most unique and prized players on either roster.
The lead-up to this season’s grandaddy of them all showdown between Stanford and Wisconsin has turned into quite the stage for the true skill position players on each team: the offensive linemen.
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“I think our approach never changes,” Cardinal offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said this week during the ramp-up to Monday’s game. “We want to control the line of scrimmage. We consider our offensive linemen to be playmakers. David Yankey pulling around and attacking the linebacker on the second level is, for us, just as important as a post-route receiver. We want to establish the line of scrimmage. We’ve got to be able to run the football and that opens up our passing game.”
Offensive linemen as playmakers? Only a few teams would be comfortable labeling them that. As for the players themselves…
“No, I don’t [consider myself a playmaker]” Yankey said with a laugh when asked about the label. Yankey has played four of the five line spots this season for the Cardinal. “I just go out and block. That’s my job. It’s nice that people like to call me that though.”
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Both Rose Bowl participants ran the ball far more often than they threw it this season, a rarity in college football today. Each places an emphasis on big, versatile offensive linemen. The Badgers come into the game ranked 12th in the country in rushing and feature the NCAA’s leader in total touchdowns in running back Montee Ball. They topped the 500 yard rushing mark twice in 2012. The Cardinal average 4.4 yards a carry and workhorse back Stepfan Taylor is ranked in the top 20 nationally in yards per game.
Wisconsin’s starting line averages 6-foot-6, 328 pounds and Stanford’s runs 6-foot-4, 299 pounds.
“Our philosophy is that our offensive linemen know that everything starts up front with them,” Ball said. “They bring the energy and level of focus to practice because they know without them, this team would really struggle.”
The Cardinal reached their third straight BCS game by transforming into a smash-mouth team that mimics the style of Wisconsin more than any other Pac-12 team. In the most recent NFL Draft, two Stanford linemen went in the first 45 picks. Stanford’s recent recruiting class was labeled by some as the best haul at the position in history.
Though they are not as big as their counterparts across the field in Pasadena, they have come to be known as a nasty, athletic group that establishes field position in the trenches and at the next level.
“I don’t get to see it when I’m playing but I do when watching film,” Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan said. “Seeing David Yankey, Kevin Danser and those guys pull around the end to blow up a defensive end or linebacker; that’s awesome … When we’re doing screens and seeing those guys out in the open field chop away and get these defensive backs, it really shows how athletic they are.”
In many ways, being big has become the identity of Stanford football and a selling point for coming to the Farm.
“You can show we have six, seven, eight offensive linemen on the field with some of those big packages,” said. “There’s an opportunity for a lot of guys to play. We do view the offensive line as one of the strong points of our team.”
“It’s important for us to control the line of scrimmage and wear on our opponents,” Hamilton said. ”We’re like the old heavyweight fighters; we want the 15-round fight and to wear them down.”
Of his tendency to call running plays behind that line Hamilton admitted, “I probably cost Andrew Luck the Heisman when it’s all said and done.”
Wisconsin has been doing the same for decades, especially once Barry Alvarez took over as head coach. This season, the five-loss team took a number games to gel after replacing three starters on the offensive line. Since the start of October however, they’ve averaged 307.9 yards per game on the ground — the fourth best mark in the nation. They also lead the country in yards per carry, no coincidence since they’ve solidified the rotation up front.
“I think as they moved and progressed (this season), they went back to their core values and who they are offensively,” Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason said. “They want to get to big groups. They want to be able to put extra linemen on the field to create gaps.”
Wisconsin went with several heavy packages featuring extra offensive linemen in the Big Ten Championship Game and had plenty of success, rolling up 70 points and 539 rushing yards on Nebraska.
“One thing they were able to do is utilize their unbalanced formations,” Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner said of the game. “They’d come in with the heavy packages and get six offensive linemen on one side, two on the other and get Nebraska into a check. It seemed to us on film like they were doing more of that as the game went on because they were having a lot of success.”
“In this game it will be interesting how much each of us does it,” Badgers offensive coordinator Matt Canada said of the heavy formations. “There’s such similarities in our approach, that fact that we do it and our team sees it. We’ll use it as the game dictates.”
Looking for a wide-open offense? Check out Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. This year, the Rose Bowl is all about making plays in the trenches.