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Rose Bowl 2014: Players to Watch in Stanford vs. Michigan State

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Rose Bowl 2014: Players to Watch in Stanford vs. Michigan State
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Don't expect many hijinks when the No. 4 Michigan State Spartans (12-1) and the No. 5 Stanford Cardinal (11-2) square off in the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl.

Wednesday's West Coast matinee (5 p.m. ET, ESPN) will feature two of the nation's most physical teams who like to pound the ball on the ground and hit hard on defense.

There will be several individual stars on display in Pasadena, including some with bright NFL futures.

Here's a look at four of the top players who will step between the lines on New Year's Day in what promises to be an entertaining Rose Bowl.

 

RB Tyler Gaffney, Stanford

Tyler Gaffney is the definition of a workhorse in college football.

Stanford has relied on the senior tailback all year, as his 306 carries make him one of five FBS players to have racked up at least 300 rushing attempts. He has totaled 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2013, wrapping things up with a 22-carry, 133-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 38-14 win over Arizona State in the Pac-12 championship game.

Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times recently noted Gaffney's unique path to his senior season after he sat out 2012 to pursue a baseball career:

Stanford Coach David Shaw had kept in touch with Gaffney during baseball season, sending him occasional texts to congratulate him on a game-winning hit or other milestones. Shaw would teasingly say, 'You've got one more year left,' privately believing Gaffney would give baseball at least two years before perhaps returning.

But one day Shaw checked his phone and saw a text from Gaffney.

"It said, 'Hey, Coach, can we talk?'" Shaw recalled. "I knew what it was. He has a love and passion for the game of football and he couldn't wait to come back and play."

He doesn't have breakaway speed, but Gaffney is a tough runner between the tackles. It will be interesting to monitor the battle in the trenches, as the powerful Stanford offensive line will face a talented Michigan State front seven.

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is an efficient player under center, but expect the Cardinal to use Gaffney to try and wear down a rugged MSU defense that ranks second in rushing yards allowed per game (80.8) and fourth in points allowed per game (12.7) nationally.

 

CB Darqueze Dennard, MSU

The Michigan State defense suffered a big loss recently when leading middle linebacker Max Bullough was suspended for undisclosed team violations.

Still, the Spartans are littered with talent up and down their defense, and Darqueze Dennard figures to have the brightest NFL prospects of them all. In his most recent mock draft published on Dec. 30, Dane Brugler of CBS Sports pegged Dennard as the No. 10 overall pick in the draft while Rob Rang had him going No. 11.

Dennard has made quite a name for himself since high school, as noted by Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated:

Dennard will be MSU's biggest weapon against Hogan, who put up solid numbers (2,487 passing yards, 20 TDs, 9 INTs) for Stanford in 2013. The 5-foot-11, 197 cornerback could spend a lot of time matched up with speedy top Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery (58 catches, 937 yards, 10 TDs).

Cardinal offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, who used to coach with the New York Jets, likened Dennard to NFL star Darrelle Revis, per Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle:

"He locks people down," Bloomgren said. Opposing receivers rarely make much yardage on him. "Not many people even catch the ball on him," he said.

Dennard and his opposite number, Trae Waynes, allow their teammates to often commit nine players to stopping the run, Bloomgren said. "Not many people in college football - or any level - can do that."

The former Jets assistant coach said Dennard "does for their defense what (All-Pro) Darrelle Revis did for ours in New York."

Dennard's talents have already been recognized, as he won this season's Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. Now he gets a chance to prove himself in the Granddaddy of Them All.

 

LB Trent Murphy, Stanford

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Before bowl season started, menacing linebacker Trent Murphy led the nation with 14 sacks en route to being named a second team All-American.

The 6'6", 261-pound edge-rusher in the 3-4 defense was one of four Cardinal defenders to make the Pac-12 First Team, along with linebacker Shayne Skov, defensive end Ben Gardner and safety Ed Reynolds.

As Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News noted, Murphy has developed quite the reputation among his teammates.

"He's actually softened up since he got here,'' Skov said. "He was like a wolf that's brought into the pound and, surrounded by other dogs, becomes more like one of them.''

The dogs thought enough of the wolf to name him a captain for the 2013 season. Always one of the last players off the practice field, Murphy is polite to a fault, self-deprecating and introspective. He even has "a goofy side,'' according to Skov.

But when the fifth-year senior steps on the field and flips the switch, destruction is sure to follow. His nickname is Yeti, for the Abominable Snowman.

Murphy will be tasked with trying to break through a stout MSU offensive line that has enabled quarterback Connor Cook to put up efficient numbers (2,423 passing yards, 20 TDs, five INTs) this season. The Spartans have allowed just 13 sacks in 13 games, so Murphy's abilities will be tested on Wednesday.

 

RB Jeremy Langford, Michigan State

Jeremy Langford is MSU's answer to Gaffney.

The Spartan was overshadowed by other Big Ten tailbacks like Ohio State's Carlos Hyde this year, but still is one of the nation's most prolific backs with 1,338 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. He enters the game with a streak of eight straight 100-yard games, as noted by David M. Lombardi of KNBR:

Langford capped off the year with a 24-carry, 128-yard, one-touchdown performance against OSU in the Big Ten championship game, leading MSU to a 34-24 victory to knock the Buckeyes out of the national championship picture.

Per another Los Angeles Times report from Klein, Langford sounds like he's taking a blue-collar approach to the Rose Bowl:

"Go get the four yards that we need,” Langford said. “I might not be biggest but I’m going to run with power and I play the whole game. Take no plays off blocking or running. I grind.”

That's the right kind of mindset for Michigan State heading into its formidable matchup with Stanford, which gives up 91.2 rushing yards per game to rank third-best in the nation. 

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