Not much separates the No. 4-ranked Michigan State Spartans and the No. 5-ranked Stanford Cardinal in the 2014 Rose Bowl. Both teams are keyed by their defenses and running games.
In this type of matchup, the winner will be determined by the team that does the little things well. Whether it's a matter of discipline or execution, the following factors will determine the 100th Rose Bowl champion.
In Michigan State's only loss this season to Notre Dame, it committed 10 penalties for 115 yards. Teams that are predicated on defense and field position can't afford to be penalized that often and for that many yards in a game.
That contest has proven to be an exception to the rule for the Spartans. The team was penalized only 5.2 times per game in every other other game this season. It must make sure it plays a disciplined brand of football against Stanford to be successful.
Stanford coach David Shaw spoke about Mark Dantonio's commitment to discipline and the impact it has had on the Spartans, via MLive.com's Mike Griffith:
It's a sign of who Coach Dantonio is, and there's some really, really good disciplinary coaches in this country that believe in setting discipline for these college athletes, which is vital to your success as a team but even more vital to their success after football.
The Cardinal haven't had enormous issues with penalties and they must stay away from that pitfall on Wednesday—especially on the offensive side of the ball. Great defenses like Michigan State don't need any help shutting teams down
Spartans Must Force Turnovers
Michigan State is a team built around its defense. It was ranked No. 1 in the nation in total yards allowed per game. You can bet senior Denicos Allen and Co. will be looking to make one last statement as a team this season.
In order to really put the Spartans offense in the best position to score, the defense needs to take the ball away. The plus-minus category has told the story for both teams this season. Michigan State is plus-14 on the season in turnover margin.
Stanford has had some issues taking care of the ball. It is minus-five in turnover margin in its two losses.
The Cardinal don't possess the type of firepower to dig itself out of a huge hole—especially not against a defense like Michigan State's. If the Spartans can get out early and force first-half turnovers, it could create an insurmountable deficit for Stanford.
Cardinal Must Limit Big Plays
The Spartans don't have a high-powered offense themselves, but quarterback Connor Cook does have some explosive weapons. Keith Mumphery isn't the Spartans' most prolific pass-catcher, but he is a threat to go the distance when he catches the ball.
He had a 72-yard touchdown reception against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game.
Plays like that can and will break Stanford in what will likely be a close contest.
Make an Impact on Special Teams
In the return game, the Cardinal have the more dangerous weapon. Ty Montgomery has already taken two kickoffs back for touchdowns this season. The Spartans may want to avoid him to keep from giving Stanford great starting position after a score.
Former player Desmond Howard, who knows a little something about the return game, had high praise for Montgomery, via ESPN college football writer Kyle Bonagura:
Desmond Howard calls Ty Montgomery the most explosive player in the country.— Kyle Bonagura (@KyleBonagura) January 1, 2014
While the Spartans don't have an explosive return man like Montgomery, freshman kicker Michael Geiger gives them the edge in the kicking game. He has made 14 of 15 field-goal attempts this season. That includes a perfect 2-of-2 against the Buckeyes.
In a hard-fought game like this one, either man could be the X-factor.
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