It’s no secret that Stanford football lives and dies by its running game.
On one of the biggest stages in college football, the Cardinal running engine sputtered and then sputtered some more for over three quarters. And when it mattered the most — when Stanford needed one more yard to keep its last-minute desperation drive alive — the engine went up in flames.
Outcoached and outplayed, No. 5 Stanford (11-3) fell to No. 4 Michigan State (13-1) 24-20 in the 100th Rose Bowl Game, a contest in which Stanford lost the battle at the line of scrimmage both on offense and defense. The Cardinal was stifled by the suffocating Spartan defense for much of the game, and, reminiscent of how it lost to Utah and USC earlier this season, Stanford’s offense couldn’t execute with the game on the line.
“You play all year and you fight all season to get to these moments, to have these opportunities,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Shayne Skov. “You play the game to get these opportunities and have these games, so to lose is incredibly difficult.”
“[Michigan State] played better,” added head coach David Shaw. “They made more plays. That’s the bottom line.”
There were no early signs of the Cardinal struggling after a 43-yard connection between junior quarterback Kevin Hogan and sophomore wideout Michael Rector set up a 16-yard touchdown score by senior halfback Tyler Gaffney, who razed safety Isaiah Lewis on his way to the end zone. Gaffney continued to impose his will two drives later when he busted off a 47-yard run that allowed senior kicker Jordan Williamson to hit a 34-yard field goal. With Stanford leading Michigan State 10-0 at the end of the first quarter, the game appeared to be headed toward a Cardinal rout instead of the tight defensive battle it was predicted to be.
But the Cardinal offense wouldn’t even get a whiff of the end zone for the rest of the game.
After rumbling for 67 yards in the first 15 minutes, Gaffney could only muster 24 yards in the next three quarters, and, after displaying an accuracy of a heat-seeking missile on the first drive of the game, Hogan cooled down quickly and didn’t receive much help from his receivers, who dropped multiple passes. Stanford became the definition of offensive futility, going three-and-out or turning the ball over on five of its eight drives after the first quarter.
“[Michigan State] made adjustments after the first couple runs, first couple drives of the series,” Gaffney said, “and we didn’t respond like we needed to.”
Just as the Cardinal offense began to crumble, Spartans quarterback Connor Cook and the rest of his offense started to put the pieces together in the second quarter. Aided by junior outside linebacker Kevin Anderson dropping what should have been a sure interception, Michigan State went on a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by tailback Jeremy Langford’s 2-yard run.
Anderson atoned for his earlier mistake later in the second quarter by intercepting an ill-advised pass from Cook, who was under heavy pressure from fifth-year senior nickelback Usua Amanam, and taking it to the house to put the Cardinal back up by 10.
Cook wasn’t fazed at all, though, not when Stanford’s pass rush failed to hit home and certainly not when the secondary left Spartan receivers wide open at times. On the very next drive, Cook threw a beautiful back-shoulder pass to wideout Bennie Fowler — good for 37 yards — and two plays later, Cook rolled out to his right and hit fullback Trevon Pendleton for a 2-yard touchdown.
“[Cook has] played too well in the last nine games of the season to think that we’re going to rattle him,” Shaw said. “He’s made some bad plays before, but, just like today, he bounces back. He’s a tough kid, he’s a big kid and he’s a better athlete than you think.”
The Spartans knotted the game at 17 apiece with an early field goal to start the second half, but the rest of the third quarter turned out to be a defensive slugfest. Stanford failed to clean up its sloppy play, as it committed a season-high eight penalties. Equally frustrating for the Cardinal was its inability to methodically march down the field — 141 of Stanford’s 305 total offensive yards came on just three plays.
“Everywhere I looked there was a green defender,” Gaffney said. “There were glimpses of [us] being successful. There were glimpses of establishing I’d almost say dominance and then we reverted back. It’s tough when you can’t really get a rhythm in the game.”
Just like how it finally caved against USC back in November, the Cardinal defense couldn’t shut down Cook in the fourth quarter. After forcing Stanford to punt out of its own end zone — a Wildcat play on second down deep in Cardinal territory resulted in a loss of 5 — the Spartans saw their best field position of the day at the Cardinal 27, allowing Cook to find wideout Tony Lippett on a post for a 25-yard touchdown to give the Spartans their first lead of the night. Picked on by Cook all day, junior cornerback Wayne Lyons was beat badly by Lippett on the play.
“[Cook’s] got a lot of poise, especially in the pocket, and he’s able to extend plays and find open guys,” Skov said. “We tried to get after him, but, at the same time, I think he remained calm and made plays when he needed to.”
The Cardinal defense managed to keep it a one-possession game. A Williamson field goal put Stanford within four, but Stanford couldn’t get a single first down when it got the ball back with 3:06 left in the game. Gaffney was held to a 1-yard gain on third-and-2, and fifth-year senior Ryan Hewitt was stuffed for no gain on a fourth-and-1 that sealed the game. Fittingly enough, it was linebacker Kyler Elsworth, who filled in for the suspended Max Bullough, who jumped over the Cardinal linemen to make the fourth-down stand.
As disappointing as the loss was, the Cardinal seniors and fifth-year seniors, including Skov and outside linebacker Trent Murphy, will end their careers with four straight BCS bowl appearances. Losing the 100th Rose Bowl Game does not take away the fact that the recruiting class of 2009 is the most successful class in school history.
“When you talk about the best teams of the BCS era, you have to mention Stanford University,” Shaw said. “You have to.”
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.