The 100th Rose Bowl Game
No. 4 Michigan State Spartans (12-1/8-0 Big Ten Conference; earned Big Ten automatic bid) vs. No. 5 Stanford Cardinal (11-2/7-2 Pac-12 Conference; earned Pac-12 automatic bid)
Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, 5 p.m. ET
Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif.
Michigan State leads, 3-2. Stanford won the last meeting, 38-0, in the 1996 Sun Bowl.
They won't wear leather helmets in the 100th installment of the Rose Bowl, but Michigan State and Stanford promise to take the Granddaddy of 'Em All back to its roots in a smashmouth matchup of old-school sensibilities.
Michigan State upset the balance of the entire BCS landscape with its dominating 34-24 win over previously second-ranked Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. In spoiling the Buckeyes' national championship aspirations, the Spartans booked their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1987.
For Stanford, the 2014 Rose Bowl is the program's second in as many years, marking its first back-to-back trips to Pasadena since 1970 and 1971.
MICHIGAN STATE AND STANFORD have the nation's No. 1 and No. 3 rush defenses and the No. 4 and No. 10 scoring defenses. The offense that can muster any big play could stake its claim to history in college football's oldest bowl game.
Michigan State powered its way to the program's first Rose Bowl appearance in 26 years with a stifling defense—the nation's best against the run. Opponents averaged just 80.8 yards per game on the ground against the Spartans. Stanford is averaging 130.1 yards more per game than that.
The Rose Bowl promises to be a war of attrition, and fittingly, that's where Michigan State's keys to victory begin.
Win The Line of Scrimmage
Each of Stanford's losses were against teams with a defensive makeup similar to that of Michigan State. Utah and USC used an active approach from the front seven and put the game in Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan's hands.
The battle up front extends to Michigan State's offense, as well. If any unit can match the Spartans' intensity and stinginess against the rush, it's the third-ranked Stanford run defense. The Cardinal are also No. 1 nationally in generating sacks.
Michigan State's offensive line must protect quarterback Connor Cook to eliminate the possibility of game-changing turnovers.
In a game pairing two dominant defenses, an explosive play can make all the difference. Both offenses will try to grind with running backs Gaffney of Stanford and Jeremy Langford of Michigan State, but the big-play wide receivers on either side can be the difference-makers. For Michigan State, it's Bennie Fowler.
Fowler averages a little more than 15 yards per reception, but his six touchdowns include catches of 34, 37 and 87 yards.
Field Position Is Everything
Stanford made quick work of Arizona State in the Pac-12 Championship Game by scoring touchdowns on first-half possessions that started at its 38, 40 and the Arizona State 37-yard lines. In that vein, Michigan State's most valuable player may be punter Mike Sadler. His ability to reverse the field contributes to the Spartans' defensive game plan.
The Rose Bowl is no consolation prize for Stanford. While members of rival Oregon lamented the possibility of playing in this game last month, the Cardinal more than embraced the opportunity.
"This is what you ask for in college football, for these opportunities," running back Tyler Gaffney said in his postgame press conference following Stanford's 38-14 win in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Red Hot in the Red Zone
Stanford came into the Pac-12 Championship Game ranked No. 109 in red-zone offense when away from home, per The Bootleg's David Lombardi, but reversed the trend against Arizona State. The Cardinal scored one field goal and two touchdowns from inside the Arizona State 20-yard line and struck for another two touchdowns from 22 and 24 yards out.
Michigan State's defense is good in the red zone, but not impenetrable. Where the Spartans excel is in keeping opponents from reaching the red zone, allowing just 27 trips inside their 20 all year. That makes capitalizing on such opportunities all the more imperative for Stanford's offense.
Come Up Big on Special Teams
Special teams are crucial to Stanford's success, whether it's Ty Montgomery's two big returns in a 31-28 win over Washington or the outstanding field position the Cardinal enjoyed in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Against Michigan State's stingy defense, Stanford needs to shorten the field. Montgomery's ability to break long returns is crucial in that endeavor.
2014 NFL Draft Prospects
Denicos Allen, LB: 91 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hurries
Max Bullough, LB: 76 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hurries, one forced fumble
Darqueze Dennard, CB: 59 tackles, four interceptions, 10 passes broken up, 2.5 tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles
Isaiah Lewis, S: 54 tackles, two interceptions, eight passes broken up
Shilique Calhoun, DE: 36 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 18 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries
Connor Cook, QB: 201-of-344 passing, 20 touchdowns, five interceptions
Kurtis Drummond, S: 86 tackles, three tackles for loss, four interceptions, six passes broken up
Jeremy Langford, RB: 269 carries, 1,338 yards, 17 rushing touchdowns; 23 receptions, 140 yards, one touchdowns
Josiah Price, TE: 16 receptions, 201 yards, four touchdowns
Trae Waynes, CB: 47 tackles, two interceptions, five passes broken up
2014 NFL Draft Prospects
Trent Murphy, LB: 58 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, seven quarterback hurries
Tyler Gaffney, RB: 306 carries, 1,618 yards, 20 rushing touchdowns
Shayne Skov, LB: 100 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles
David Yankey, OG (Redshirt Junior): 2013 Preseason All-American, All Pac-12 First Team
Devon Cajuste, WR: 27 receptions, 591 yards, five touchdowns
Kevin Hogan, QB: 170-of-277 passing, 2,487 yards, 20 touchdowns, nine interceptions
Ty Montgomery, WR/KR: 58 receptions, 937 yards, 10 receiving touchdowns; 32 kick returns, 997 yards, two touchdowns
Jordan Richards, CB: 64 tackles, three interceptions, four tackles for loss, six passes defended
A.J. Tarpley, LB: 87 tackles, five tackles for loss, one interception
Connor Cook, Michigan State Quarterback
"We heard people talk bad about us all year. This wasn't the first week where we heard people say negative things about us as an offense or as a football team. I think we were underdogs in the majority of the games we played this year. It really didn't affect us."—via the Associated Press
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State Head Coach
"We're going to live this one for a while, live it for a month. But it's important that we finish what we started and that will end with a bowl game."—via the Associated Press
"I do understand how much [the Rose Bowl] means to the Spartan Nation out there. At the same time, we live in a little bit of a bubble, those who are in it, as coaches and players. It takes on even an added significance for those people because they really are, right now as we sit here, they're in a life moment. They're in a moment they should remember for the rest of their lives." —via MSUSpartans.com
Max Bullough, Michigan State Linebacker
"Just as a person, I've seen so many things and had so many experiences that I wouldn't have had otherwise. I wouldn't trade it for the world. Michigan State has probably been the best experience of my life so far and I'm excited to say that."—via MSUSpartans.com
Shayne Skov, Stanford Linebacker
"It's been an incredible ride. Every single week, this team comes out and fights hard. Win, lose or draw, we played our hardest, and it's a pleasure playing with my teammates. When you play with high quality and high character guys, it makes it that much better."
Tyler Gaffney, Stanford Running Back
"This is exactly what you came back for. This is what you play for. This is what you ask for in college football, for these opportunities."
David Shaw, Stanford Head Coach
"Four straight years, 10-plus [wins]. I talked to the seniors a month ago, after the USC game and people were calling me names and they're us and all that, and we have no issue with that. That's fine...That's not a big deal to us. But I told the players...what was at stake is their legacy."
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
The Rose Bowl may be the most intriguing of the five BCS bowl games because of how similarly built and evenly matched these teams are. In an era defined by explosive offenses and innovation, Stanford and Michigan State finished the regular season ranked in the BCS Top Five and won conference championships with traditional offensive philosophies and hard-nosed defense.
Each roster is flush with future NFL talent, particularly on defense. Denicos Allen, Shayne Skov, Max Bullough and Trent Murphy are four of the nation's best linebackers.
Both teams are hitting their stride at the right time. This is truly a contest likely to be decided by a single play, one stand or missed opportunity. Recent history is on Stanford's side, as the Big Ten has just two Rose Bowl wins in the 21st century and one since 2001.
Obviously, this is a different day, and Michigan State's athleticism on the defensive side is a worthy counter to Stanford. Consider this a coin toss, with the distinct possibility of a long Ty Montgomery kickoff return setting up a decisive Jordan Williamson field goal.
Prediction: Stanford 17, Michigan State 14