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Spartan Football: The Outlook Moving Forward…Stanford

Coming off their respective Conference Championships, the Spartans (12-1) and Pac 12-Champion Stanford Cardinal (11-2) will meet for the 100th Rose Bowl Game at 5:10 on New Year’s Day.


It’s hard to remember a Spartan unit that’s come so far during one season. While they may not be a high octane Offense, this unit ended up averaging just under 30 points per game. Before the leaves started changing color this fall, it looked like 30 points could be a couple weeks total output. And though they may not be the best Offense in this Rose Bowl, they only need to play well enough for the team to win.

Despite the Offense’s self critique that they could’ve done more against Ohio St., the reality is that the 34 points they hung on a good Ohio St. Defense may have been their best work all year. Let’s face it, that was essentially the Offense’s Final Exam and they smashed any remaining doubters. There weren’t many predicting that MSU would put near 34 up on OSU, which bodes well for their Rose Bowl performance. It’s not even clear whether we’ve seen the best performance out of this Offense yet for the year.

Connor Cook took another big step forward against Ohio St., in a very specific way. As the game entered the 4th Quarter it became clear that plays were there to be made in the passing game. As the 3rd period ended Cook had about 200 yards of passing, but you could sense that in order to comeback from a 24-20 deficit, he’d need 100 yards passing or so in the final period alone. Cook appeared to recognize that scenario and embrace the moment. He basically manned up and led the charge to take the trophy away from Ohio St.

The Rose Bowl is the biggest stage in the sport outside of the BCS Title Game and the greatest Bowl Game that exists by miles, but don’t expect Cook to balk in that setting. He may not have been a big Buckeye fan as a kid, but he knew what he was doing in ending the Bucks’ 24-game winning streak and bumping them out of the National Title Game. That 4th Quarter performance was huge, and may one day be looked back upon as the launching pad for a great career.

It was also a national coming out game for Jeremy Langford. It looked early on that Langford didn’t have the strength to break through the stronger OSU front seven and that Delton Williams or Cook needed more carries, but Langford got a bit stronger as the game wore on and the Bucks started to soften just a bit. In a familiar scene late, his final TD run sealed the deal for MSU.  Stanford has been excellent at defending the run this year, so the sledding again may be tougher.

Stanford ended 2013 ranked 15th in Total Defense by giving up an average of just 339 yards per game. Their Rushing numbers are the 3rd best in the country, giving up just 91 yards per game (MSU allowed 80) against a better schedule than the Spartans faced. The Spartans may need more than just Langford carry after carry. Williams, Cook, RJ Shelton, and maybe a couple others may need to get involved to show the Cardinal different looks. If the Spartans cannot run the ball effectively, it will be to Stanford’s advantage.

There shouldn’t be many surprises going up against the Stanford Defense, nor any short cuts to success. The Spartans must continue to have success at the line of scrimmage, specifically when running the ball. If they cannot, Stanford’s athletic enough to get into Connor Cook’s face and make things more difficult than they looked for the second half of the regular season. But the Spartan Offense has gotten better and better by the week, and could well improve after a set of Bowl practices.


Thankfully for MSU, Braxton Miller is not suiting up in Cardinal and White on New Year’s Day. MSU had their hands full with the most dominating runner in the Big Ten, if not one of the top five rushers in the country. Carlos Hyde wasn’t too shabby either, and that Buckeye pair threatened to take the game over for good if the Spartans’ interior lineman (talked about extensively in The Outlook before that game) didn’t improve. “We've got to be better inside than we were,” Pat Narduzzi said during the recent Rose Bowl media gathering. As we know, the Defense’s energy was lifted when Pat Narduzzi came down from the booth in the 3rd Quarter, and the Buckeye’s running success was tempered.

While Miller and Hyde are off to Miami to do some serious damage to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, the Spartans cannot expect Stanford to be that much less of a challenge. Though they won’t face a combination as dominant as Hyde and Miller, Tyler Gaffney is a big time Running Back. Gaffney is a Toby Gerhart type power back that needs to be hit early before he gets going full steam ahead. In that respect, he is like Carlos Hyde. But Hyde is about 10 pounds heavier and carries more power in his legs. Cardinal Quarterback Kevin Hogan can run (314 yards in 2013), but is far from a Braxton Miller type weapon.

In total, the Cardinal ranked 23rd in rushing, totaling more than 210 yards per game in 2013. MSU must therefore play tight inside to limit Stanford’s rushing success. It’s the extra yards that Gaffney’s known to get, the ones beyond what a play is designed for or after missed tackles, that can really wear a Defense down physically and emotionally. “The one thing I think that's going to be huge is just how we adjust on the run,” Narduzzi explained. At least MSU knows where to start.

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“They're going to do a little bit of both, try to run the ball, play action you hard, and throw the ball deep,” Narduzzi summed up. Kevin Hogan is Stanford’s up and coming Red Shirt-Sophomore Quarterback looking to transition into the stable leader David Shaw needs to completely replace Andrew Luck. A successful Rose Bowl against the vaunted Spartan Defense could be just that launching pad. He should expect to have his hands full with the No-Fly Zone Spartan Defensive Backs. “They're going to try to run the ball, but also try to take our corners deep,” Narduzzi added.

If the Spartans are moved from the point of attack, as they were for a stretch against Ohio St., it should push MSU back on their heels and limit the amount opportunities for this Defense to really snarl in pass rush situations. Narduzzi pointed out that that Stanford’s “run first” perception is statistically deceiving. “They're really 50/50…I think that's the image they portray is that they'd like to run the ball at you every snap, but really 53 percent run is what our stat is on them.” MSU dominated Ohio St. on 3rd Downs in the Championship game, shutting the Buckeyes down on 9 out of 10 tries, and also stuffed them out on both 4th Down conversions they tried. If the Spartans win those two downs decisively in this Rose Bowl, it would be hard to expect a losing result.

Special Teams

Mike Sadler is a unique guy, and judging on his post season honors, maybe a little tough for people to figure out. Sadler was named a 1st team All-American by ESPN but pretty much left off other All-American lists. Perhaps that’s because he’s only a Junior, perhaps because football is not be his only life interest, or perhaps because voters and pundits don’t pay that much attention to Punters. Like a current NFL Network anchor is known to say though, “Punters are People too.”

Sadler could be busy and important in what many expect will be a tight game with an emphasis on field position. Knowing the regard Mark Dantonio places on the Punting game, we should not be surprised if another precise Sadler strike changes the game’s momentum at a key point. There’s also of course the threat for a trick play, which Stanford must be expecting at some point in the game.

Mike Geiger is the other standout kicker the Spartans bring into Pasadena. All he’s missed this year is the one windblown try at Iowa that we’re still not completely sure was actually no-good. Geiger showed no nerves in the Big Ten Title Game and hasn’t shown any all year to suggest he will tighten up on the Rose Bowl stage. If this game goes as expected, the kicking game matchup could end up deciding the winner.


Just as many thought the Buckeyes were “due” to lose in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Pac-12 looks “due” to lose in the Rose Bowl. Stanford has a fine team, and has become an overachieving program in the last half-decade, but they may not match up so well with the Spartans. MSU has been chomping at the bit for their first taste of a BCS game since 1999, and the Rose Bowl is the one they’ve craved most all along. They’re even expected to have a “home field” advantage in Pasadena, which should only add to the Green momentum that’s been building towards this 100th Rose Bowl. At this point, many signs point to a very good New Year’s Day for Spartan Football.

Stanford has made a habit of being more physical than their Pac-12 foes, and they should be credited for doing as much. But the Spartans have been playing and competing at a higher level of physicality than the traditionally softer west coast teams. It’s unlikely that Stanford can effectively prepare for the power and speed of the Spartans Defensive front. As we discussed in The Outlook before Ohio St., the Defensive Tackles are so important to stopping the opposing rushing attack. Look for them to establish themselves early and to finish the game playing a consistently high level. If they do, Stanford will struggle to score enough points.

It would be a surprise if this game became a blow out for either side, though Bowl Games do sometimes produce inconsistent results relative to the regular season. Most expect this to be a one possession game (8 points or less) either way, and it’s easy to see why. It’s been hyped as an old school straight ahead matchup, which is just how these two programs want it. It also presents Spartan Football with an opportunity to once again be recognized as a top program on a national level.

Spartan Football has come a long way since bottoming out at the end of the John L. Smith era. When Mark Hollis introduced Mark Dantonio as Smith’s replacement, the new Coach spoke early of taking this program back to the Rose Bowl. At the time, it looked farfetched. From day one though, while working out of temporary trailers, Dantonio, Hollis, and the entire Football staff locked in on a vision and plan of action to get MSU back to the Rose Bowl. January 1st will be a realization of that dream, and should spark the kind of widespread Spartan awakening Mark Hollis spoke of the day he took over as MSU’s Athletic Director.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. No conference has a better logo than the Pac-12. Whatever the Big Ten finally evolves to in the next couple of years, hopefully they can find a new logo to compete with the Pac-12 beauty.
  2. If a 4 or 5-star recruit plays football or basketball for Michigan St., he’s usually described as “workman like” or an over achiever. If that kid is playing at USC, LSU, or Florida, he’s often labeled some kind of athletic freak. The average viewer is smart enough to see the truth for themselves, and so are the professional sports leagues in this country. Figure out a new set of clichés, major media outlets, we’re all stocked up here.
  3. This may be the last of the traditional Rose Bowl matchups between the Big Ten and Pac-12. Hopefully the coming College Football Playoffs will make sure the matchup is preserved whenever possible, but inevitably there will come another year with a foreign Conference participant or two. It won’t feel right, and I bet we’ll all wish the Big Ten and Pac-12 never sacrificed the strongest Bowl tradition in College Football.

Let me hear what you think inside the Phalanx Forum & @JPSPartan