PASADENA, Calif. -- Kyler Elsworth looked up from his linebacker spot and noticed that Stanford's offensive line splits were unusually tight. He read the play. And he remembered what the Michigan State coaches had emphasized about meeting the Cardinal's runners up top, not down low. When Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan received the snap on a do-or-die fourth-and-one with 1:46 remaining in the game, Elsworth timed his jump and lunged straight for Cardinal fullback Ryan Hewitt.
"I was happy [Hogan] handed off," said Elsworth, "or I would have tackled the wrong guy."
He tackled the right guy and stopped Hewitt short of the first-down marker. In doing so, Elsworth, a former walk-on and career backup starting in place of suspended Spartans star Max Bullough, helped seal a 24-20 Rose Bowl victory, Michigan State's first in 26 years. He did it in front of a BCS-record 95,173 spectators, and more than 10 million television viewers.
"It was one of those once in a lifetime plays," Elsworth said.
In fact, in a fitting tribute to the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl, the 2014 game came down to a play straight out of 1954. A fullback smashed into the line of scrimmage and a gang of tacklers refused to budge.
"Everybody in the building knew exactly what was coming, a run was coming up the middle," said Cardinal tailback Tyler Gaffney, who trailed on the play. "It was a test of wills and they got the better of us."
It was a test of wills followed by a wild dance party. In the Spartans' postgame locker room, players, managers, coaches, coaches' wives and even their children all swayed to the mid-'90s hit "This Is How We Do It," yet another throwback on a day drenched with history. Next season, college football will move to a four-team playoff, and Pasadena will host one of the first-ever semifinals. The traditional bowl between Big Ten and Pac-12 programs could well feaure Alabama and Auburn, or LSU and Florida State. The teams might celebrate for a bit afterward, but then it's on to an even bigger game two weeks later.
Until then, however, fans were treated to one last Rose Bowl where the game was the ultimate goal. Folks in SEC country might scoff at that notion, but their Midwest and West Coast brethren still treat this event with the utmost importance. "We are in a big-time environment; we're at the Rose Bowl playing the No. 5 team in the nation," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said afterward. "There is no bigger prize, really."
At least 60,000 green-clad Spartans fans were in attendance, most having escaped frigid winter temperatures back home (including 16-degree weather in East Lansing) to bask in the sun on a 78-degree, completely cloudless day.
Tammy Walsh, donning a green necklace and carrying green pom-poms, settled into a lower-level seat a few hours before kickoff. She took in the freshly painted field against the backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains and let out a little whoop. Her husband, Dave, a Michigan State alum from the class of 1972, had commented back in the parking lot that with all the green around them, this could well have been a Spartans' home game. "Not with that view there," said Tammy.
Stanford fan Loyd Kelly attended his first Rose Bowl shortly after graduating in 1952. He took his son when the Cardinal played in the game in '70 and '71, and on Wednesday, he sat in the second row of the stadium with his three grandsons. "The scene is the same," he remarked.
It's a scene that has played out for 99 consecutive years -- 91 of them in this fabled stadium tucked in the Arroyo Seco canyon. Many of college football's 35 bowl games didn't exist 10 years ago, much less 100. Others have changed names every few seasons. While the Rose Bowl has endured, the World Series has been canceled once (1994), as has an entire NHL season (2004-05). The Super Bowl may soon be played on the North Pole in late March.
Granted, the freshly renovated stadium no longer looks entirely like it once did; digital State Farm and Muscle Milk ads blanketed the video board behind one end zone, and there was a giant Vizio logo at midfield. But the bands still marched on the field, and the sun still set late in the third quarter, turning the mountains a hue of purple.
"The fourth quarter was really special," said Michigan State offensive lineman Travis Jackson. "The place was electric, the sun went down, the lights came on. We're just so blessed to have won the 100th Rose Bowl."
The Spartans (13-1) won in much the same way they had in their previous 12 victories -- with suffocating defense. It didn't start out that way. Stanford (11-3) marched down the field on its opening drive, blowing open holes and gashing Michigan State on a 43-yard Hogan-to-Michael Rector pass and a 16-yard Gaffney touchdown run. As the Cardinal raced to a 10-0 lead, there was cause to wonder whether co-captain Bullough's suspension had decimated the nation's top-ranked defense. When Stanford went up 17-7 on an ugly pick-six by Connor Cook late in the second quarter, it seemed uncertain whether the up-and-down Spartans quarterback could handle the Cardinal's vaunted pass rush.
But Michigan State controlled the remainder of the game. After gaining 102 rushing yards in the first half, Stanford's smashmouth offense managed just 60 the rest of the way. "We took it personally," said Elsworth. "We're the No. 1 defense in the nation, we need to play like the No. 1 defense in the nation." They did, holding the Cardinal to just three points and six first downs in the final 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, Cook shredded Stanford's defense like few opposing quarterbacks have over the past two seasons, completing 22-of-36 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns. His first attempt at a go-ahead drive late in the third quarter ended when Cardinal linebacker Shayne Skov stripped running back Jeremy Langford at the Stanford eight-yard line. "Right then and there I was like, OK, you know what? I'm comfortable," said Cook. "It's the Rose Bowl, it's the second half, we've got to win this game. That right there was the turning point for our offense."
Early in the fourth quarter, Cook connected with Tony Lippett for a 25-yard touchdown strike and the Spartans went up 24-17. At that point, Stanford was in trouble. Its running game had stalled, and it is not in coach David Shaw's play-calling DNA to take repeated shots downfield. The Cardinal did manage a field goal to slice the score to 24-20 with 4:15 left, but their final, doomed drive began at their own 25-yard-line with just 3:06 left. Three consecutive running plays and nine yards later, Elsworth met Hewitt.
"They weren't going to score anyway," said Michigan State's cocksure defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "We were going to make sure of that. But it was nice to end it early on a fourth-down stop."
The Spartans celebrated wildly -- with the band, the cheerleaders, family members and even random celebrities like rapper Rich Homie Quan. Hopefully, the scene will be repeated for many years to come. Hopefully, fans will continue to make the pilgrimage to Pasadena, but that's no guarantee. In semifinal seasons (once every three years), they might opt to save their money for a possible title game trip. In the years in which the Rose Bowl stages a Big Ten versus Pac-12 matchup, fans might be disappointed their team didn't make the four-team field.
On this night, however, nearly an hour after the game ended, two of the last remaining Spartans fans walked through the tunnel to the parking lot, giddy after convincing an usher to fetch them some of the littered confetti strands from the field. The twenty-something men marveled at their new memento, but more so at the entire day.
"It was epic," one said. "Beyond epic. It was an experience."
An experienced shared by 99 years of football fans before them.