The 2014 Rose Bowl features two old-school squads in Stanford and Michigan State, and the two programs have bullied opponents into submission all year long. The hallmarks of both teams are impenetrable defense and a relentless rushing attack, and they both feature elite players on both sides of the ball.
Stanford reached the Rose Bowl after winning the Pac-12 Championship Game in impressive style, 38-14, over Arizona State. The Cardinal finished the season with a record of 11-2, having lost tight games to Utah and USC.
Michigan State lost just one game in 2013, back in September when Notre Dame eked out a close one at home. Since that time, the Spartans have rattled off nine straight wins, the latest being their impressive 34-24 victory over (then) No. 2-ranked Ohio State.
It's going to be a physical contest in which every inch will be contested with violent force and only the strong will survive. With that in mind, here's a look at the key players who'll influence this brutal battle one way or another for both teams.
Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
Kevin Hogan is a competent quarterback, but Stanford's offense is predicated first and foremost by a power-rushing attack led by senior Tyler Gaffney.
Gaffney's been a workhorse for the Cardinal this year, churning out 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. He's eclipsed 100 yards nine times and has scored at least one touchdown in 12 of Stanford's 13 games.
He'll need to be at the top of his game during the Rose Bowl, however, as Michigan State comes into the contest with the best run defense in college football. It is worth noting, though, that Ohio State's Carlos Hyde was able to gain 118 yards on 18 carries in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Stanford's offensive line will be an even match against Michigan State's defensive front, meaning it'll be up to Gaffney to make the best of his opportunities.
Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
Like Stanford, Michigan State's offense features a run-heavy approach. Junior running back Jeremy Langford is a stalwart player for the Spartans, and he's accounted for 18 touchdowns this year.
However, when Sparty needed a big game from quarterback Connor Cook in the Big Ten Championship Game, the impressive sophomore delivered in a big way.
Outplaying Braxton Miller, Cook passed for 304 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, spreading the ball around to eight different receivers. He showed tremendous poise under pressure, and if Michigan State is going to take down Stanford, he'll need to do so once again.
Trent Murphy, LB, Stanford
Stanford's front seven on defense is rock solid, but of all the talented men who comprise this group, Trent Murphy stands above his teammates as a potential NFL superstar in the making.
The outside linebacker has racked up 14 sacks this year after notching 10 the year before, and NFL scouts will be pleased that his production has increased every season the past four years.
Not only will Murphy need to apply pressure on Cook, but he'll need to hold the edge on running plays. He—along with Shayne Skov—must play at their absolute best to ensure Stanford's defense isn't gashed for game-changing plays in the Rose Bowl.
Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard will likely be selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft thanks to his elite coverage skills and smooth athleticism.
But, Dennard isn't just a one-trick pony. He is an active and physical defender in the running game who has been an integral part of the team's top-ranked run defense.
When Stanford does decide to throw, however, you can be sure Hogan will know where Dennard is on the field. The lock-down cornerback will be in receiver Ty Montgomery's hip pocket the entire game. If Hogan decides to test Dennard, then nobody should be surprised if he ends up coming up with an interception.
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