Rose Bowl Preview: Michigan State vs. Stanford

Michigan State is making its first trip to Pasadena since the 1987 season in what will be the 100th Rose Bowl. This is a culmination of sorts for Mark Dantonio in his seven seasons in East Lansing, finally getting the Spartans to the Big Ten’s Holy Grail after some close calls. Stanford is making its fourth trip to a BCS in a row and its second journey in succession to the Rose Bowl. This has become the premier Pac-12 program under David Shaw. Who needs Jim Harbaugh?

[ MORE: View the 2013-14 bowl schedule ]

Rose Bowl Game, Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET

Michigan State (12-1) vs. Stanford (11-2)

Storyline: When these teams look at each, it has to be like looking in the mirror. Each loves to play physical, black-and-blue football from a bygone era. Fullbacks are in, spread offenses are out. Michigan State and Stanford are all about running between the tackles and tough defenses that attack. Pack your big boy pants, fellas. This one won’t be for the faint of heart.

Player on the spot: Connor Cook. The sophomore Michigan State quarterback may have been at his best in the Big Ten championship game triumph over Ohio State, earning game MVP honors after completing 24-of-40 passes for 304 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. When the season opened, Cook wasn’t the starter. But he took over in the third game of the season from Andrew Maxwell and steadily has improved to the point where he’s an asset for an offense that began 2013 as a question. Cook also has benefitted from a receiving corps that has grown up after a rough 2012. Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett have been the leaders of the re-born wideout ranks.

Best individual matchup:
There are many good choices. But let’s go with Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard vs. Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery. Dennard was voted the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year and won the Thorpe Award. Montgomery has 58 catches for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s unequivocally the go-to guy in the Cardinal passing game that thrives on play-action. Dennard must limit Montgomery’s big plays when Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan tries to stretch the field.

Best unit matchup: Michigan State defensive line vs. Stanford offensive line. Power on power, as these teams will battle for every inch of Rose Bowl real estate. The Cardinal averages 210.9 yards rushing; the Spartans allow 80.8 yards rushing. Stanford has monster blockers in David Yankey, Cameron Fleming, Andrus Peat and Khalil Wilkes. Michigan State has monster d-linemen in Shilique Calhoun, Tyler Hoover, Marcus Rush and Micajah Reynolds. Something is going to have to give. Who can impose their will on the other in this trench warfare?

[ MORE: Get all of our Big Ten bowl coverage ]

THREE REASONS TO BE OPTIMISTIC

1. Defense. It’s really good. The Spartans are No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense (12.7 ppg); No. 1 in total defense (248.2 ypg); No. 1 in rushing defense (80.8 ypg); No. 1 in pass-efficiency defense (91.5). The stalwarts for coordinator Pat Narduzzi are cornerback Darqueze Dennard, end Shilique Calhoun and linebacker Max Bullough.

2. Jeremy Langford. He has been one of the Big Ten’s biggest revelations. Langford has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the last eight games, a school-record. On the season, Langford has 269 carries for 1,338 yards with 17 touchdowns. And just think: Running back was a big question for MSU when the season started. No one knew Langford would be the answer—or this good.

3. Hunger. This is a driven Michigan State squad that wants to finish the job with a bang. And that means winning the Rose Bowl. All season long, the Spartans have played with a chip on their shoulders. It has served them well in winning every Big Ten game by double-digits after a tough 7-6 mark in 2012 that saw the Spartans lose five games by a combined 13 points.

[ MORE: Who wins Big Ten bowl games? Cast your winners! ]

THREE REASONS TO BE WORRIED

1. Stanford has a good defense, too. The Cardinal is No. 1 in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (18.6 ppg); No. 1 total defense (339.0 ypg); No. 1 in rushing defense (91.2 ypg); No. 6 in pass-efficiency defense (122.5). The stalwarts are lineman Ben Gardner, linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov and defensive back Ed Reynolds. The Spartans will need run-pass balance to crack the code of this Stanford defense.

2. Tyler Gaffney. The Cardinal running back is the ultimate workhorse, rushing 306 times for 1,618 yards and 20 TDs. If he gets going behind the blocking of a strong and massive Stanford line, the Cardinal offense will be difficult to stop. The more carries Gaffney gets, the stronger he becomes.

3. Been there, done that. This Stanford program is accustomed to the big stage and won’t be star-stuck or fazed by the grandness of the event. For the Cardinal, this is more of a business trip than a joy ride that will end a 26-year Rose Bowl drought—which is the case for Michigan State.

My pick: Michigan State 17, Stanford 14

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

And if you want to leave a comment on this post, use the box below. All comments need to be approved by a moderator.

Find out more about:

5 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (5 Comments)
Spartan in Los Angeles on 12/16/2013 @ 9:49am EST Said:

Looking forward to watching my Spartan Dawgs against Stanford, hoping to see Spartan Nation out here to show some love to my boys.

Doug on 12/16/2013 @ 6:40pm EST Said:

thanks for picking MSU Tom, most of the so called experts are picking against MSU, but that’s been going on all season, nothing new there

Spartan in Los Angeles on 12/16/2013 @ 8:46pm EST Said:

Most of those so called experts just go on the rankings from previous years Doug

Pete on 12/18/2013 @ 9:19am EST Said:

Show some respect for Gardner! Without him playing due to a pec injury weeks ago shouldn’t your spread for Michigan be larger? How do you neglect that loss of a stalwart defender?

Doug on 12/25/2013 @ 7:31pm EST Said:

I know SILA, I’m good with MSU being the underdog against Stanford, why would the experts predict an MSU victory when no one gave them a chance vs OSU ?