There’s nothing quite like the Rose Bowl Game.
It’s been through two world wars, but it’s also seen the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. It’s been through the September 11 terrorist attacks, but it’s also seen the first moon landing. The Rose Bowl Game is the biggest game on the West Coast every year. The Rose Bowl Game is The Granddaddy of Them All, and it will always be The Granddaddy of Them All.
So when No. 5 Stanford (11-2) and No. 4 Michigan State (12-1) clash in the 100th Rose Bowl Game on Pasadena’s hallowed grounds on New Year’s Day, there are no words that can do justice to the century-old tradition that 90,000-plus fans will be lucky enough to witness live and millions more will watch on their television screens. There are no words that can adequately describe how the game has endured the test of time.
“I think it’s one of the things throughout the year you can always count on,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “You can always count on the Rose Bowl being the Rose Bowl.”
It’s only fitting that the 100th Rose Bowl Game features two of the most physical teams in the nation, with the outcome likely to be decided by whoever wins the mano-a-mano battle in the trenches. Stanford averages 5.0 yards per rush, but Michigan State gives up only 2.7 yards per carry. The Spartans offensive line has given up just 13 sacks this season, but the Cardinal pass rush has collected 40 of them.
Something has to give.
“I see a lot of blood, a lot of bruises, a lot of dust,” said senior running back Tyler Gaffney. “It’s going to come down to who is tougher, who is going to execute better, who is going to crumble and who is going to stay strong.”
The two words “perseverance” and “determination” tattooed on Gaffney’s arms aptly characterize his nine 100-yard performances this season, but running lanes may come at a premium against the nation’s top defense that held 10 of its 13 opponents to fewer than 100 yards on the ground. The suspension of middle linebacker Max Bullough — the two-time captain whose significance to the Spartans defense is comparable to what fifth-year senior linebacker Shayne Skov means to the Cardinal — certainly hurts Michigan State, but Denicos Allen and Taiwan Jones are very capable in their own rights. The two outside linebackers have combined for 150 total tackles.
Shaw described the All-Big Ten defense as a Michigan State team meeting, and rightly so, because the Spartans defense is loaded with physical and athletic veterans who swarm to the ball. The country’s top cornerback, Darqueze Dennard is the star of the unit’s patented “No Fly Zone” secondary and is so impressive in his shutdown coverage that Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason compared him to Darrelle Revis. The Spartans defense isn’t satisfied with just stifling opposing offenses; defensive end Shilique Calhoun’s three touchdowns this season is a testament to the unit’s opportunistic play. The Spartans have allowed only 19 touchdowns all season and have scored five, netting an average of 1.08 per game.
But there is good reason to believe that the Cardinal offense will see success if it sticks to its winning formula displayed in the Pac-12 Championship Game. A steady balance of a creative running game — involving junior wideout Ty Montgomery and junior quarterback Kevin Hogan — and Hogan taking smart shots downfield off the play action — including capitalizing on mismatches created by junior receiver Devon Cajuste — may help keep the Spartans defense on its toes. That being said, fans should still expect a heavy dose of Stanford’s bread-and-butter power running game.
“We need to go out there and be the more physical team and consistently move the ball and keep our defense rested,” said senior left guard David Yankey. “If our defense is rested they can be really, really good, but if they’re on the field for a long time it’s tough for any defense to be good.”
The Cardinal defense has been really good ever since the heartbreaking October loss in Salt Lake City. Once a kryptonite to the Cardinal’s ferocious pass rush, bubble screens and jet sweeps no longer baffle Stanford as the two cornerbacks, sophomore Alex Carter and junior Wayne Lyons, have brought a renewed physicality at the line of scrimmage. Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Trent Murphy hasn’t given opposing quarterbacks much time to throw the ball, and his uncanny ability to bat down passes like Godzilla razing buildings with a single swat has certainly helped — even on normally safe passes like swing passes and bubble screens.
In many ways, the impressive progress that Michigan State’s offense has made throughout the season resembles the development of the Cardinal’s offense in 2012. Spartans running back Jeremy Langford comes into the Rose Bowl Game with eight straight 100-yard games and has found the end zone 18 times. For the Cardinal defense, it’s all about not giving up the big play, a philosophy it has perfected against some of the most explosive offenses in the country this season.
“Defensively, we’ll just stick to what we’ve done all year,” said Skov, who will be playing in his final game in a Cardinal uniform tomorrow. “That’s attack and control the line of scrimmage at the point of attack and limit explosive plays. That’s been our mantra since day one.”
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook doesn’t boast eye-popping statistics, but he can be lethal when throwing to his trio of receivers — Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings Jr. — off of the play action. If Murphy and the Cardinal’s pass rush hit home, it’ll be difficult for Cook to march his offense consistently, as Cook showed a tendency to make bad decisions and poor throws when under duress. Given enough time, however, Cook is very accurate with the deep ball and will have a chance to carve out the Cardinal secondary.
Like Gaffney said, one team has to crumble when the two heavyweights collide.
The 100th Rose Bowl Game is slated for a 2 p.m. kickoff, with national television coverage on ESPN.
Contact George Chen at [email protected].
Please follow The Daily’s live blog and @StanfordSports on Twitter for instant updates and analysis tomorrow.