Rose Bowl 2014: Key Storylines in Michigan State vs. Stanford Clash

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistDecember 13, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 07: Connor Cook #18 of the Michigan State Spartans holds up the MVP trophy next to head coach Mark Dantonio after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes 34-24 to win the the Big 10 Conference Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 7, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Much of the discussion surrounding the Big Ten and Pac-12 during the 2013 college football season centered around the explosive offenses of Ohio State and Oregon. 

However, the old cliché that defense wins championships certainly applied in the respective leagues, setting up a Rose Bowl clash between two of the stingiest squads in the country. Michigan State knocked off the Buckeyes in the Big Ten championship, while Stanford once again ended the Ducks’ title hopes earlier in the year.

As a result, the Spartans and Cardinal will face off in the 100th edition of this legendary bowl game. Let’s dig into a few critical storylines.


Take the Under

Michigan State and Stanford are as close to mirror images of each other as you can get in today’s college football world with hundreds of different fast-paced offenses and playbook quirks.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 07:  Carlos Hyde #34 of the Ohio State Buckeyes is tackled by the defense of the Michigan State Spartans during the Big Ten Conference Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 7, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Both rely on strong running games and physically dominating defenses. Chances are, the Rose Bowl will be a low-scoring affair, and it is of no real fault of either offense—these two defenses are just that good.

The Spartans finished fourth in the country in points allowed (a mere 12.7), while the Cardinal weren’t far behind at 10th (18.6). The argument can be made that Stanford’s finish was even more impressive considering the caliber of offenses it faced throughout the year, including Oregon, Arizona State twice, Washington, UCLA and Oregon State.

Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough won't have a problem with a physically challenging game if his quote to Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press is any indication:

"To me, that’s football. I’m a little bit of an old-school guy, but to me, that’s football.” 

There won’t be a lot of scoring with these defenses on the field, especially since these teams often rely on long drives fueled by the rushing attack. It’s difficult to put together those types of marches against any defense, let alone two of the best in the country.


Timely Strikes

Logic would hold that if long, extended drives that rely on the running backs will not come easy on Jan. 1, timely strikes from the passing game will be the key.

Connor Cook and Kevin Hogan are underappreciated signal-callers who may not make the flashy play a la a Johnny Manziel, but they are more than capable of delivering on a critical deep ball. Which quarterback can do that against the tight, press coverages they will be facing could determine the outcome. 

Look for Ty Montgomery of Stanford to run a fly pattern or two at the right moment for Stanford, and the Spartans’ collection of talent at wideout to do the same.


Watch the Fake

Mark Dantonio has developed a reputation for the trick play over the years ever since a fake field goal affectionately dubbed the “Little Giants” knocked off Notre Dame in overtime in 2010.

Be it the fake punt, another fake field goal or even a surprise onside kick, don’t be surprised if Michigan State institutes some kind of trick play on a national stage at the Rose Bowl. The Spartans tried a surprise onside kick against the Buckeyes in the fourth quarter of the Big Ten Championship Game, which was only unsuccessful because it trickled out of bounds.

Stanford is a fundamentally sound football team. It will have to be against Dantonio and the Spartans.


Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.