Rose Bowl: What to watch for when Stanford takes on the Spartans

Dec. 31, 2013, 10:30 a.m.

Don’t let the BCS rankings — or the final score of the Big Ten Championship Game — fool you. The Cardinal should beat Michigan State, and I think that it shouldn’t even be that close.

The Spartans proved themselves to be a worthy adversary in the 100th Rose Bowl Game with their 34-24 win against then-No. 2 Ohio State in that game, but the final score of that game is a bit misleading. Watching that game closely, which I recommend all curious Stanford fans do before the Rose Bowl, Ohio State made a tremendous amount of stupid mistakes while the Spartans dodged a few potentially crucial blunders themselves. Those factors combined to make Michigan State look better than it really is.

Don’t get me wrong, Michigan State looked like a strong football team and did a lot of good things against a very talented Ohio State squad. The Spartans’ weaknesses, however, were very apparent, and the Cardinal has the potential to make Sparty pay dearly. And as Stanford proved with its wins against Arizona State and Oregon, if the Cardinal plays well and takes advantage of its opponent’s weaknesses, it cannot lose, no matter how good the opponent’s strengths may be.

When Michigan State is on offense, the key will be getting to quarterback Connor Cook. I know that might not seem very insightful, as it is crucial in every contest, but after watching Cook play against the Buckeyes, I am not sure I’ve seen a quarterback as affected by pressure as Cook.

Early on against the Buckeyes, Cook had a tremendous amount of time in the pocket, and he was deadly accurate. The Spartan passing game has been lamented for much of the season, not unlike Stanford’s in 2012, yet Cook seemed to dispel those concerns. He hit all of his receivers, and was impressively precise even when moving outside of the pocket on designed rollout plays. Behind this play, Michigan State jumped out to a 17-0 lead and looked like one of the best teams in the nation.

But then Ohio State started getting pressure, which was surprising against an offensive line that has only given up 13 sacks in 13 games. And when the pressure came, Cook was beyond flustered. Multiple times, Cook panicked, and rather than taking a sack, the quarterback hurled throws up for grabs. Every one of those passes easily could have been intercepted, but none of them were. Sheer luck saved Michigan State from potentially damning turnovers.

While Michigan State’s offensive line is strong, Ohio State’s ability to get pressure is a strong indication that Stanford should be able to get to Cook as well. There aren’t many better pass-rushing units in the country than the Cardinal’s, and fifth-year senior linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov will be licking their chops when they watch the film. Oh, and don’t think senior free safety Ed Reynolds won’t be looking to take one of those panicked throws back for his first pick-six of the season — he’s been waiting for a golden opportunity like that for a long time.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan State is much more stout. Sparty has one of the best defenses in the country. The defense has allowed only 12.7 points per game and has scored five times itself — three times on fumble returns and twice on interceptions. The unit placed five players on the All-Big-Ten first team for the first time since 1966, and has the best defensive lineman and best defensive back in the conference.

But Michigan State showed two glaring weaknesses against Ohio State, and both play right into Stanford’s strengths. The Spartans struggled against Ohio State’s read-option attack for much of the game. According to those who cover Michigan State, that has been a problem for much of the season. The rhetoric around the Spartans is that everyone is excited to finally play an offense that doesn’t run the read option.

Those people would be incorrect. While Stanford certainly doesn’t run the read option as much as Ohio State does, the Cardinal has slowly been increasing the role of the read option throughout the season. Ever since junior quarterback Kevin Hogan took control of the option package back, the play has been wildly successful — even on third-and-long. After watching tape on the Spartans, I would be shocked if head coach David Shaw doesn’t go to the read option very often early on, at least until Michigan State can prove that it can stop it, especially with the Spartans’ All-American middle linebacker Max Bullough suspended.

One method used by the Spartans to stop the bleeding against the Buckeyes was to get their safeties involved in the running game. The linebackers and safeties flowed toward any run action instantaneously, leaving enormous holes in the secondary downfield. Strong safety Isaiah Lewis was absolutely toasted on a deep ball against Ohio State due to this, but he was bailed out by a dropped pass. Free safety Kurtis Drummond also bit once, but he was fast enough to catch up and break up a ball that was slightly underthrown.

Hogan will need to take advantage of this aggressiveness from the safeties with the occasional play-action deep ball. As long as Stanford can protect Hogan for a few seconds, these plays should be wide open.

If Hogan can’t take advantage, the Spartans are certainly talented and physical enough to stop Stanford’s running game. If Hogan can play like he did against Arizona State, I think Stanford could have a similar type of dominant victory. Junior wide receiver Devon Cajuste will be the wild card. Stanford loves getting him matched up against safeties while flexed out as a third receiver, and in this role he should have at least one play where he is open deep. If Hogan can hit him — and sophomore Michael Rector and junior Ty Montgomery if they pop open against the talented cornerback tandem of Trae Waynes and Darqueze Dennard — the Cardinal will coast to a victory.

Sam Fisher has his notes ready and voice primed to call another Stanford Rose Bowl victory on KZSU. Remind him not to get too overconfident — with his broadcast and game prediction — at safisher ‘at’

Sam Fisher is the managing editor of sports for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 244. Sam also does play-by-play for KZSU's coverage of Stanford football, Stanford baseball and Stanford women's basketball. In 2013, Sam co-authored "Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football," with Joseph Beyda and George Chen.

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