Fans of traditional football would be wise to not miss the 2014 edition of the Rose Bowl when the No. 4 Michigan State Spartans (12-1) and the No. 5 Stanford Cardinal (11-2) clash in a game sure to be a battle of wills.
Both the Spartans and Cardinal love to play gritty football on the ground flanked by strong defenses. Individual stars will be few and far between, but those talented enough to rise above will stick out to fans in attendance and watching from home.
Here are three names to watch in a game sure to be a low-scoring affair grounded in the traditional sense.
Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
There is no better NFL prospect on the field than Darqueze Dennard when these two sides meet.
Dennard has shut down any and all comers this year as he has slowly made his way up the ranks of draft-eligible corners. In fact, Dennard is now the No. 1 overall corner prospect according to CBS Sports.
Dennard is the piece that allows the Michigan State defense to be the No. 4-ranked unit in the land with an average of just 12.7 points allowed per game. Cardinal offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren broke down how, 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."
No. 31 is far and away the biggest name to watch, especially when it comes to defense. Stanford is far from known for its passing attack, but Dennard must hold up well to ensure the Spartans can throw everything they have at stopping the next man on the list.
Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
Dennard is the best player on the field, but Stanford's Tyler Gaffney may be the most feared.
The definition of a workhorse, Gaffney carried the ball 306 times in 2013—which translated to 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Gaffney is backed by a top-10 defense that allows an average of 18.6 points per game. But make no mistake, his ability to churn out yardage (5.3 yards per carry) and keep the ball in the hands of the Cardinal offense is a major factor in the overall success of the team.
Expect to see a heavy dose of Gaffney all day long as the Cardinal attempt to break down the elite Spartans defense through brute force. If one man is capable of accomplishing the feat, one would have to think it is Gaffney.
Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State
Michigan State's counter to Gaffney is junior running back Jeremy Langford. He rushed for 1,338 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2013 on five yards per carry.
As David M. Lombardi of KNBR suggests, Langford may be the key to a Rose Bowl victory:
I think this guy is key to game. RB Jeremy Langford has 8 straight w 100 yards. MSU will need 9 to win IMO pic.twitter.com/OF7Kahti4Q— David Lombardi (@DavidMLombardi) December 29, 2013
Most important player in Rose Bowl?
Langford is no stranger to showing up big when his team needs him most. Under the bright lights of the Big Ten Championship, Langford rushed for 128 yards and a touchdown against the Ohio State Buckeyes.
At this point, sophomore quarterback Connor Cook is not the liability he once was, but Langford will still have to carry the load for the offense against a top defense. His ability to do so will determine the game.