It might be called the Rose Bowl, but don't expect anything flowery in this New Year's Day classic when No. 4 Michigan State (12-1) takes on No. 5 Stanford (11-2) in the 100th edition of the Grandaddy of Them All. Both teams are very similar with stout and physical defenses, workhorse running backs and solid quarterbacks.
In this new age of college football where teams love to spread it out and pass the ball, the Rose Bowl provides a vintage powerhouse matchup of the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions.
While MSU stunned the football world by beating Ohio State, 34-24, in the Big Ten championship game to keep the Buckeyes out of the BCS title game, Stanford muscled its way to a convincing 38-14 win over Arizona State in the Pac-12 championship game.
Here's a look at the key matchups for both teams entering this year's Rose Bowl classic on Wednesday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN), in what figures to be a close battle that will be decided in the fourth quarter.
Running Backs vs. Stout Front Sevens
In such a physical matchup, it's no secret that both teams will be trying to establish the run.
Both Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney and MSU running back Jeremy Langford will have to work hard to earn their yards against two of the toughest run defenses in the nation.
Gaffney established himself as a bell cow in his senior season, a year after stepping out of football to pursue his baseball career, as detailed by Lindsay Schnell of Grantland. The senior is one of five FBS players to have at least 300 carries this season, totaling 1,618 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns.
But Michigan State entered bowl season with the nation's top-ranked rush defense, allowing only an average of 80.8 yards per game. Right behind the Spartans on the national leaderboard is Stanford, which has allowed just 91.2 rushing yards per game.
The Cardinal will be tasked with containing Langford, who was quietly one of the most prolific backs in the Big Ten and the country in 2013. The junior racked up 1,338 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, and is keeping a workman-like approach, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times.
“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."
Both running backs need to enter the Rose Bowl with the same attitude if they want to lead their teams to victory.
Stanford LB Trent Murphy vs. MSU O-line
Trent Murphy's teammates call him the "Yeti" because he has a fiery mean streak in between the lines. Before bowl season started, he was the nation's leading sack artist, with his 14 quarterback takedowns tops in the FBS.
Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News recently profiled the hulking outside linebacker in Stanford's stout 3-4 defense:
Whether outside linebacker Trent Murphy is Stanford's best player and top NFL prospect is subject to debate, but this much is beyond dispute: On a team that relishes old-school football, that batters and bludgeons opponents, Murphy is the meanest, nastiest, orneriest player on the roster.
Just ask ... well, everyone.
"It's not even close," coach David Shaw said. "Shayne Skov is unbelievably intense. But Trent is in his own category. I'm just glad it's not directed at us."
The 6'6", 261-pound Murphy has also been key in setting the edge for Stanford's stout defense against the run, but he's made a name for himself this year by getting to the quarterback. On Wednesday, efficient MSU signal-caller Connor Cook (2,423 yards, 20 touchdowns, five INTs) will be in his sights.
The Spartans have been among the nation's best when it comes to protecting the quarterback, surrendering just 13 sacks in 13 contests this season. It will take another strong effort to slow down Murphy, who is sure to be fired up in the final game of his college career.
MSU Pass Defense vs. Stanford QB Kevin Hogan
Of all the players who step on the field Wednesday afternoon in Pasadena, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard figures to have the best NFL prospects in 2014. As Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated noted, Dennard has come a long way since being an unheralded recruit out of high school.
Now Dennard is pegged as a top-10 pick by CBS Sports' Rob Rang, being recognized as one of the elite cover corners in college football. The 5'11", 197-pound Dennard has also caught the eye of Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, according to 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."
That's high praise for Dennard, who will be tasked with slowing down Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, who amassed 2.487 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2013. But Dennard isn't the only explosive playmaker who excels for Michigan State against the pass.
Sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun, junior safety Kurtis Drummond and senior safety Isaiah Lewis were also named to the Big Ten First Team, giving Hogan and Stanford's passing game a tall order in the Rose Bowl.
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