On Jan. 1, 1902, Stanford faced Michigan in the first-ever Rose Bowl Game. It was not a good day for the Cardinal. The Wolverines' 49-0 rout was so unwatchable that the folks in Pasadena did not bother to stage another football exhibition for more than a decade. Fortunately for future generations of teams and fans, the Tournament of Roses reinstituted the Rose Bowl in 1916, and Wednesday's game will be the 100th edition. Fortunately for Stanford, it has fared much better at the Granddaddy of Them All of late, winning last year's game against Wisconsin 20-14. This will be the Cardinal's fourth straight appearance in a BCS bowl, and their 15th in the Rose Bowl, more than any other school besides USC or Michigan. Stanford's second consecutive Pac-12 championship campaign featured a memorable Thursday night beatdown of then-undefeated Oregon on Nov. 7, wins over UCLA (9-3) and Notre Dame (8-4) and two blowouts of South Division champ Arizona State (10-3).
But in Michigan State, the Cardinal will face their toughest foe since their victory over the Ducks. The Spartans stunned previously unbeaten Ohio State 34-24 in the Big Ten title game on Dec. 7 to extend their winning streak to nine and clinch their first trip to Pasadena in 26 years. Michigan State's veteran defense finished the season ranked No. 1 in total defense (3.94 yards per play) and rushing defense (2.70 yards per attempt), and No. 4 in scoring defense (12.7 points per game), respectively. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio and his Stanford counterpart, David Shaw, are both proponents of smashmouth, run-first offense. Both boast physical, fundamentally sound defenses. This game should be a fitting tribute to 1902-era football.
Points of interest
1. No Bullough: No player better personified Michigan State's blue-collar defense than middle linebacker Max Bullough, a third-generation Spartan and a team captain, as well as the quarterback of the defense. Shortly after Michigan State's plane touched down in Los Angeles on Dec. 25, however, the Spartans announced the stunning news that Bullough (76 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss) would be suspended for his final collegiate game for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Starting in his place will be either senior backup Kyler Elsworth (10 tackles) or sophomore Darien Harris (seven). Bullough's absence from the lineup is a crushing blow to Michigan State, not only because of his invaluable leadership, but also because of the pivotal role he figured to play in defending the inside rushing attack of Cardinal workhorse Tyler Gaffney (1,626 yards, 20 touchdowns).
The Spartans' defense has plenty of other talented players who contribute to stuffing the run, most notably linebacker Denicos Allen (91 tackles, 15 tackles for loss). Cornerbacks such as Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard allow coordinator Pat Narduzzi to play man coverage and load up the box. The bigger issue for Michigan State will be how well Bullough's replacement can fill his role of recognizing and calling out checks before the snap. That will be particularly crucial against Stanford, which utilizes a heavy dose of shifts, motion and wacky alignments (like lining up eight or nine offensive linemen). "I really trust Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris to make those calls," said Narduzzi. "It's not very difficult, they just haven't had the opportunity."
2. The need for balance: Though neither team figures to throw the ball 50 times, neither can expect to win solely with its rushing attack. Both teams are coming off conference championship games in which their unheralded quarterbacks played exceptionally well. The Cardinal's Kevin Hogan completed 12-of-18 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown against the Sun Devils. The Spartans' Connor Cook competed 24-of-40 attempts for a season-high 304 yards with three touchdowns and one interception against the Buckeyes. On Wednesday, however, both will face significantly tougher pass defenses. Stanford, led by All-America linebacker Trent Murphy (14 sacks), is tied for No. 1 nationally in sacks (40). Michigan State, led by lockdown cornerback Dennard (four interceptions), is No. 2 in yards allowed per attempt (5.1).
Cook (20 touchdowns, five interceptions) has been slightly more consistent than Hogan, and the Spartans' secondary is the stingier of the two. But in a game in which yards figure to come at a premium, one or two big plays might swing the outcome, and Stanford has two playmaking receivers in juniors Ty Montgomery (58 catches for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Devon Cajuste (21.9 yards per catch on 27 receptions). "We're going to stick to our game plan, our style," said Hogan. "Run first and take shots when they're there."
3. Chess match: Two of the sport's most renowned defensive coordinators, the Spartans' Narduzzi and the Cardinal's Derek Mason, have had 25 days to draw up their game plans. There should be no shortage of creativity. Narduzzi is known for masterfully disguising coverages and unleashing all manner of blitzes. Mason knows opponents' tendencies cold and his players usually demonstrate discipline accordingly. Veteran players such as Dennard and Allen for Michigan State, and Murphy and Shayne Skov for Stanford, know exactly what their coaches want.
Still, neither defense will attempt to slow down an exotic spread-option attack the way the Cardinal did to Oregon, or the Spartans did to Ohio State. Scheme may be less important than which team plays tougher and faster.
Will there be tricks? Dantonio is the coach who brought fans Little Giants (a game-winning fake field goal in overtime against Notre Dame a few years ago) and Charlie Brown (a game-turning fake field goal against Nebraska this season). He's had nearly a month to cook something up for the Rose Bowl. Will he pull the trigger in his biggest game as head coach?
Stanford wide receiver Ty Montgomery: The nation's top kickoff returner (31.16 yards per return) has two touchdown returns, and he set up Stanford with short fields on numerous occasions this season. He can compensate for a slow-moving offense if the need arises.
2.70, 2.98: Those are the average rushing yards per attempt allowed by the Spartans' (No. 1) and the Cardinal's (No. 4) defenses, respectively. The national average for offenses is 4.49.
Neither team should be able to get much going offensively, but Stanford, which is no stranger to the BCS stage and better tested by a brutal conference schedule, will exploit Bullough's absence and grind out a win with Gaffney.
Stanford 17, Michigan State 14