Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney will be key to the outcome of the Rose Bowl (Image: David Yankey, Creative Commons)

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Christmas is over, College Bowl games are in full swing and New Year’s Day is almost upon us, which means only one thing in the College Football world – the Rose Bowl.

Come Wednesday afternoon Pacific time, all eyes will be solely placed on Pasadena, California to see fifth ranked Stanford take on fourth ranked Michigan State in what will be a defensive tussle in the 100th edition of the ‘Granddaddy of them all’.

The Pac-12 champion Stanford Cardinal qualified for the Rose Bowl after defeating Arizona State in the Pac-12 Championship game.

The Cardinal lost two games all year – a huge upset against Utah in which Stanford produced a dreadful performance and a three-point loss on the road against USC.

The high point of the season, so far, came as Stanford yet again ended Oregon’s hopes of qualifying for the BCS National Championship with a 26-20 home victory over the Ducks.

Stanford has been led by Junior Quarterback Kevin Hogan, who has shown significant improvement upon his sophomore season.

Hogan is no Andrew Luck, but he has shown an ability to direct his team around the park throughout the season, whilst making good decisions and some difficult throws.

He has also shown he possesses the ability to gain yards with his legs if he has to, rushing for 314 yards in 2013.

His Quarterback Rating has improved from 147.9 in 2012 to 154.1 in 2013 and he has increased his yards per attempt.

Hogan has benefitted from a strong receiving corps in 2013 – most notably Ty Montgomery who has 58 receptions for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Only Biletnikoff Award winner Brandon Cooks and Oregon’s Josh Huff have more receiving touchdowns than Montgomery.

Hogan has also gained significant support from senior running back Tyler Gaffney, who has rushed for 1618 yards at 5.3 yards a carry.

It is vital that these three players fire on Wednesday if the Cardinal hope to overcome the strong Spartan defence.

Stanford has been a mixed bag on defence this year. The Cardinal are the 15th best Total Defensive team in the nation, per NCAA.org, but they have the third best rush defence in the nation and just the 89th best pass yards defence.

Thankfully for the Cardinal, the Spartans have struggled passing the ball all season.

The Rose Bowl is likely to be a defensive struggle and the Cardinal will need national sack leader Trent Murphy to pressure Spartan quarterback Connor Cook into making poor decisions.

If Cook is to make poor decisions, Defensive backs Ed Reynolds, Wayne Lyons and Jordan Richards must be able to capitalise on these errors by taking interceptions – something the Cardinal has struggled to do this season, ranking 99th in the nation in Total Turnovers forced.

If the Cardinal can replicate the strong defensive showing produced against high-powered offences such as Oregon, they are more than capable of taking down the Spartan offence.

In that match, the Cardinal contained the Ducks offence by dropping linebackers back into zone coverage whilst the defensive backs played man coverage. The defensive line also did a good job keeping Marcus Mario Mariota in the pocket, limiting his chances to run.

This defensive set-up prevented the Ducks’ receivers from getting open, while also allowing the Cardinal linebackers to converge on the ball carrier if Mariota chooses to run or dumps it off to the running back.

Replicating this sort of defence in the Rose Bowl would help the Cardinal secondary, with the linebackers providing help in the pass defence.

This does, however, ask a lot of the Cardinal linebackers and as a result, they must be on song on Wednesday in order to maximise Stanford’s chances of winning.

Michigan State Spartans qualified for their first Rose Bowl in 26 years by upsetting the previously undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big-10 Championship game.

The Spartans have been strong all season, losing just one match, to Notre Dame in South Bend, 17-13.

Many of their victories have come on the back of the No.1 ranked defence in the country, while their offence has struggled for much of the season.

The Spartans have also had a much softer schedule than the Cardinal, playing just three ranked opponents and going 2-1 in those matches.

The Spartan offence has been led by sophomore quarterback Connor Cook in his first season as the starter.

While not setting the world on fire with his performances throughout the season, Cook has been respectable and managed games very well, whilst minimising his turnovers, throwing just 5 interceptions, with a quarterback rating of 133.9.

Junior running back Jeremy Langford has also played admirably in his first season as the starter, rushing for 1338 yards at 5.0 yards a carry with 17 touchdowns.

Langford is likely to struggle on Wednesday against the third ranked rushing Cardinal defence, however a big game on the ground for Langford would be huge for the Spartans.

The Cardinal passing defense has struggled throughout the season against strong Pac-12 offences. This means that Connor Cook and his receiving corps of Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippet and Macgarret Kings Jr. must step up and take advantage of a weak Cardinal secondary.

A strong performance by Cook should lay the platform for a Spartan victory, especially if the Spartan defence plays as well as they have been all season.

Speaking of the Spartan defence, they have are the No.1 ranked overall defense, number five passing defines and the top-ranked rushing defence in the nation.

The Spartan defence is coming off the Big-10 Championship match in which they shut down the high-powered Ohio State offence – something no other team has been able to do all season.

In this match the Spartans’ defensive backs played tight coverage, while the front seven managed to restrict Braxton Miller’s running ability by keep him inside the pocket.

If Michigan State is able to do this again, against a quarterback with less of a running threat, they will be one step closer to securing the Rose Bowl. This is far easier said than done, however.

Additionally, the Spartans have been a strong tackling team all season. This was notable against the Buckeyes and is incredibly important against Stanford on Wednesday.

Michigan State will, however, severely miss senior linebacker Max Bullough. Bullough has been a key pillar of the Spartans’ defence and had 76 tackles this season, including 9.5 tackles for a loss.

The Cardinal offence is a strong offence and unlike any offence the Spartans have faced all season, but the Spartans have had three weeks to prepare for this match – expect them to dominate the Cardinal rushing attack and pressure Kevin Hogan from the outset.

The 100th edition of the Rose Bowl is likely to be a defensive struggle for 60 long minutes of football. Expect both defences to dominate the match and keep it close.

The match is likely to come down to which offence can make the big plays when they need to be made.

I feel that the experience of Kevin Hogan and Ty Montgomery will enable the Cardinal to come through in the vital moments and help Stanford come through with the victory in a close, low scoring match.

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