I saw the 100th Rose Bowl Game like this: Stanford were beaten at their own game by a ferocious Michigan State team, whose defense came up trumps on a number of crucial occasions to deliver the signature win the Spartans have been waiting and hoping for since Mark Dantonio took over as coach.
Sparty’s first Rose Bowl title in 26 long years will be remembered for a long time, and Athletic Director Mark Hollis, an innovator who conceived the idea of basketball on an aircraft carrier, looks like an out-and-out genius for signing Dantonio to a multi-year extension just before the game.
September wasn’t good for the Spartans. Quarterback Connor Cook didn’t even start the season as starter. October was better. In November, this team started to flex its muscles, and it was about that time when you figured if anyone could beat undefeated Ohio State, it was Michigan State.
Their defense was ironclad, a bunch of big guys up front who could fill a hole and tackle you for a loss, and a secondary who nicknamed themselves the ‘No Fly Zone’ because opposing quarterbacks discovered a graveyard down there when they put the football up.
December brought about the team’s defining moment – well, defining moment before their heroics in Pasadena.
Dantonio’s men beat Ohio State, handing Urban Meyer his first loss in two seasons in the Big Ten Championship Game, and it was the Spartans headed for the Granddaddy of them all, doing to the Buckeyes what they’d done to teams all season: stifling them offensively to within an inch of their collective lives.
What to say about Stanford? Well, their defense wasn’t as good on New Year’s Day as it has been for most of the rest of the season.
Shayne Skov was a force in the middle, as you’d expect, but he didn’t have enough help.
It’s ironic that much of the pregame talk focused on how Michigan State would miss their suspended star linebacker Max Bullough. Well, you wouldn’t have known it, the way the Spartan defense played.
Instead, it looked like the Cardinal were missing their big star.
Offensively, Stanford just didn’t do enough. True, they looked dynamite in the first quarter, but that was as good as it got, a false dawn, for the Cardinal.
Their offense didn’t score another point all game. Only Kevin Anderson’s 40-yard interception return for a touchdown off of an errant Connor Cook throw made the game as close as it was.
Hard-nosed running back Tyler Gaffney, a pounder of defenses all year – ask Oregon – managed a meagre 24 yards after quarter time, and 91 for the game.
Nothing doing, as they say. The Spartan front was dominant. Play-calling from Stanford’s David Shaw… less than dominant.
Conversely, Michigan State looked dangerous every time they had the football, and had at least a modicum of success each drive, moving the ball mostly through the air, with Cook throwing for 332 yards and two huge touchdowns, choosing the Rose Bowl to play the best game of his career after another strong showing in the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State.
The last play, a fourth down and one near midfield for Stanford, was emblematic of the performance of MSU’s defense, which gave up only 159 yards over the final three quarters after being run through early.
It was former walk-on (and the man who replaced Bullough in the centre of the defense) Kyler Elsworth, jumping over the pile to stuff Stanford’s Ryan Hewitt with less than 2:00 to play.
It was an all-in team effort on the day and all season. No one player was bigger than the team. Pat Narduzzi’s men were disciplined all season and all game, which ultimately delivered the biggest prize in Big Ten football.
For as long as I’ve been paying attention to college football, Michigan State has been good.
They’re always there or thereabouts in the Big Ten title race, and somewhat nationally relevant, but 2013 will be remembered for being the year where they became great, and that season of improvement and change was perfectly capped off in the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains on the first day of January 2014.