If you like smashmouth football, proud programs and solid defense, well, you are going to love Michigan State versus Stanford in this year's Rose Bowl.
The similarities between these teams are readily apparent. Stanford rushed for 210.9 yards per game; Michigan State ran for 182.2. Michigan State held opponents to just 12.7 points per contest, fourth in the nation, while Stanford allowed only 18.6, ninth in the country.
And both ended the national title hopes of prominent programs this year, with Stanford beating Oregon in early November and Michigan State knocking Ohio State out of the title game in the Big Ten Championship.
So with so little to distinguish these teams, what key matchups will decide this old-fashioned, physical contest? Which players will need to play big roles for their team to win?
Let's find out.
Mike Sadler, P, Michigan State
Yes, a punter.
Sadler was excellent for Michigan State this season, averaging 42.3 yards per punt. In a game that could very well be decided by the battle of field position, burying Stanford deep inside of its own territory would give the Spartans a serious advantage.
Let's call a spade a spade—this game will absolutely be won in the trenches.
Michigan State's best unit on offense is its offensive line. Defensively, it is loaded across the board, but it is impossible to run against. Of course, Stanford's line play has become the staple of the program, ensuring a battle between the big nasties on both sides of the ball.
SI.com's Pete Thamel believes Stanford's "innovation" along the offensive line is one of its biggest successes:
[W]ith a surplus of blue-chip players destined for NFL careers, and with creative schemes that deploy as many as nine offensive linemen at once, Stanford is showing that imaginative line play isn't necessarily a paradox.
Fitting for a school where ingenuity is intertwined in its ethos, Stanford has managed to challenge the boundaries of position group often perceived as primitive. The Cardinal have used at least six offensive linemen on a majority of their plays this season, and they've evolved to the point that formations with seven and eight offensive linemen have become the norm.
Cardinal offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren talked about the schemes: "I don't know that anyone is doing it to the degree we are. We've had people copy us, video games have added our formations and everyone has invited me to speak at clinics."
It won't be sexy, but you can bet there will be some strategy at play and serious hitting going on between these lines on both sides of the ball.
Trent Murphy, Linebacker, Stanford
With 58 tackles, 14 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss, few players on either side of the ball have the potential to make as much of an impact as Stanford's All-America linebacker, Trent Murphy.
With a nasty streak and a habit of playing in an opponent's backfield, he'll be sure to introduce himself to Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford early and often.
Ty Montgomery, WR, Stanford vs. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
While Stanford has leaned on running back Tyler Gaffney quite heavily this season—1,618 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns—the running lanes will be more narrow against a tough Michigan State front seven. That means Montgomery is going to have to win the battle on the outside.
Montgomery has been pretty good this year, with 58 receptions for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns, making himself Stanford's go-to guy in the passing game. But getting open against Dennard is another story altogether.
The senior cornerback, All-American and Jim Thorpe winner quite literally cuts the field in half, as opposing quarterbacks simply don't throw his way. His four interceptions may not catch your eye, but the fact that the receiver he's blanketed often isn't heard during a broadcast is all you need to know.
Montgomery is a big, physical receiver who will try to use his body to jockey for position and keep the chains moving. But if Dennard completely takes him out of the matchup, Stanford's passing game will suffer, and Michigan State will have one less aspect of the Stanford offense to concern itself with.
Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
Speaking of Cook, the sophomore has emerged as a steady presence at quarterback this season, finishing with 2,423 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions. With a solid running game and arguably the nation's best defense, his task has been simple—manage the game and hold onto the ball.
But against Stanford, the running game will likely be less effective than usual and the Cardinal will dial up the pressure in obvious passing downs. Cook is going to have to make plays with his arm down the field at some point, and if he does—and if he can continue to avoid the turnover bug—the Spartans have a great chance to steal a win.
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