On the field, Stanford and Michigan State are two remarkably similar teams in their philosophies and playing style. But when you look at the storylines of their separate journeys to the 100th Rose Bowl Game, a stark contrast becomes evident.
Stanford will be playing in its fourth consecutive BCS bowl game and is in Pasadena for the “Granddaddy of them All” for the second year in a row. Meanwhile, the Spartans will be playing in their first (and only) BCS bowl in school history and their first Rose Bowl since their victory over USC in the 1988 Rose Bowl.
However, the Cardinal does not believe that its veteran status will prove to be much of an advantage on the field against a talented Michigan State team that it has the utmost respect for.
“Come game day, it doesn’t matter,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “It’s going to be a football game whether you’ve been here before or never been here before.”
Although Shaw does not think that his team’s previous experience will be a large factor come Jan. 1, the Cardinal will have the mental advantage of treating its trip to Pasadena as a “business trip,” as many of its players and coaches have emphasized. Instead of being overloaded with new experiences thrown at them left and right, Stanford’s players will be able to relax and enjoy the events and sights that they have already had the opportunity to experience last year.
A good example of the Cardinal’s changed attitude came in the Lawry’s ‘Beef Bowl’ Saturday night, when players, coaches and media were invited to a large scheduled dinner together. While many players stuffed themselves full of ribeye steaks last season, most exercised more moderation this time around in order to stay in good condition for the week’s practices.
“By no means are we not going to enjoy the week, but at the same time, if you have downtime, you feel less inclined to see the beach or go to ‘In-N-Out,’” said fifth-year senior linebacker Trent Murphy. “We’ve been here, we’ve seen it, so it’s fun to watch film and get that win because this experience isn’t going to be as enjoyable if we remember it with a loss at the end.”
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, however, believes that the gap in big-game experience is one of the foremost challenges that his Spartan team will face against a battle-tested, weathered Cardinal squad.
“I think [the experience gap] is one of the biggest things that we have to be able to conquer as a football team,” Dantonio remarked. “[Stanford is] a football team that has been in BCS games. This is the first opportunity and challenge in such an event like this [for Michigan State], especially at the Rose Bowl. We just keep talking about handling success. We’ve been successful thus far, but we’ve sort of been a team that has sort of had to scratch and climb our way into this, really all the way from September.”
Although it really remains to be seen how the difference in big-game experience will translate to the field, some of the Spartans — including star cornerback Darqueze Dennard — seem to have handled the Beef Bowl like returning players.
“I gotta stay lean and mean,” Dennard said. “[Stanford’s players] do a pretty good job, so I just ate one prime rib…I don’t want those guys running by me.”
Unlike most of his team, senior running back Tyler Gaffney is experiencing the Rose Bowl week for the first time in his career after taking last season off in order to play minor league baseball. After being in Pasadena as a fan cheering on his teammates a year ago, he is getting the full week’s worth of the experience as a player this year and enjoying the significance of the buildup towards one of the most prestigious games in college football.
“It’s more than what [the others] told me [last year],” Gaffney said. “This is real special. To be in the 100th Rose Bowl, to be in the Rose Bowl as a West Coast kid, as a Pac-12 player, this is what you ask for as a college football player.”
A physical, run-stopping Michigan State defense will be the final challenge of the season for the workhorse back that led an effective Stanford offense to victories over some of the premier teams in the country en route to Pasadena. After a school-record 45 carries in the Cardinal’s victory against Oregon earlier this season, one has to think that if anybody is able to unlock the nation’s best rush defense, it will be Gaffney behind the stout Cardinal offensive line.
“I see a lot of bruises, a lot of blood, a lot of dust,” Gaffney commented. “It’s going to come down to who is tougher, who is going to execute more, who is going to crumble and who is going to stay strong.”
And on one of the biggest stages in college football, combined with one of the most special experiences in college football, Gaffney is energized and ready to take the field with his teammates in Cardinal red one final time.
“[The experience] just makes the game a little bit more highly touted,” Gaffney said. “You really realize what the Rose Bowl is. When you first got here you saw the festivities, but as the game gets closer, you can feel the energy of the Rose Bowl, of the tradition.”
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.