TEAMS: Stanford (11-2, 7-2 Pac-12) vs. Michigan State (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten)
TIME: January 1st, 5:00 p.m. EST
TICKETS: Rose Bowl tickets
What better way to celebrate the 100th Rose Bowl Game then by pitting two teams ranked nationally in the top-5 and who are both defensive stalwarts? Both teams have won a combined 23 games against only 3 defeats.
While both teams have been noted for their defensive prowess, it may be their offenses that have improved the most throughout the year. Coming into the year, there were many questions about the Michigan State offense. The quarterback situation for the Spartans was in flux as head coach Mark Dantonio did not settle on a starting quarterback until after the third game when sophomore Connor Cook took the reigns. Cook would go on to pilot the Spartans ship for the rest of the season amassing over 2,400 yards passing and throwing for 20 touchdowns. Perhaps Cook’s finest game was reserved for the Big Ten title game against Ohio State where he threw for a season-high 304 yards. Now, he and the Spartans head into the Rose Bowl winners of 9 in a row and hitting on all cylinders.
While choosing the right quarterback in East Lansing would prove to be daunting, so to, would be finding the right running back to replace the Big Ten’s second leading rusher, Le’Veon Bell. No pun intended, but Bell was legitimately Michigan State’s bell cow. He toted the rock a league leading 382 times and averaged a league best 137.92 yards per game. Finding someone or even a tandem to replace that kind of dynamic running would be difficult under even the best circumstances. In stepped junior running back Jeremy Langford. In 2012 Langford only rushed the ball nine times for a measly 23 yards. You likely would have gotten long odds on him having a breakout 2013. And, after four games of this season he had run for just 268 yards on 58 attempts (4.6 yards per carry). Once Langford hit the Big Ten portion of the schedule, he took off. In nine Big Ten games, including the Big Ten title game, Langford got at least 21 rushing attempts and over 100 yards. He also scored 13 touchdowns in Big Ten games. All of that added up to over 1,300 yards rushing on the season and the Big Ten’s sixth-leading rusher.
Perhaps the group that showed the biggest improvement was the Michigan State wide receivers. In 2012 the Spartans were plagued by the “drops”. They lost five games by a total of 13 points, many of them due to dropped passes by the receivers. While 2013 didn’t show much improvement in the overall numbers, the Spartan receivers did a better job eliminating many of the drops that plagued them the year before. The Spartans were led in receptions (39) by Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, Jr. Both combined for nearly 1,000 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery were the Spartans deep threats. They averaged 15.4 and 16.4 yards per catch, respectively. On the season, Fowler hauled in 6 touchdowns.
While the Michigan State offense found its rhythm as the season has progressed, the Spartans defense has always been a dominant force, not only in the Big Ten, but also nationally. Michigan State ranked first nationally in total defense allowing only 248.2 yards per game and fourth in scoring defense allowing a microscopic 12.7 points per game. No doubt the Spartans will be hampered by the loss of their First Team All-Big Ten defensive captain, senior linebacker Max Bullough, who was suspended prior to the Rose Bowl game. While Bullough is an important cog in the Spartans defensive unit, he is not the only player that can keep the Michigan State defense intact. On the season, Michigan State was led in tackles by another senior LB, Denicos Allen. You could usually find Allen wherever the ball was found. Allen was also second on the team with 5.5 sacks.
Up front, the Spartans have one of the best defensive ends in the conference and perhaps the country. Shilique Calhoun was voted as the Big Ten’s Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year. As only a sophomore he led the Spartans with 7.5 sacks and recorded 14.0 tackles for loss. He will certainly be counted on to slow down Ty Montgomery, Kevin Hogan and the Stanford Cardinal offense.
While the linebackers and the defensive linemen for the Spartans are tough to beat, it very well may be the Michigan State secondary that carries the day. What’s more, the Spartans led the Big Ten in passing defense allowing a mere 167.4 yards per game and only permitted teams to throw for 5.1 yards per pass attempt. The Spartans are the only team in the Big Ten that can lay claim to having three defensive backs named first-teamers (Darqueze Dennard, Kurtis Drummond, and Isaiah Lewis). In fact, Dennard was named as the Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year.