Stanford faces nation's top defense in Rose Bowl

Stanford faces nation's top defense in Rose Bowl
December 31, 2013, 2:15 pm
Share This Post

In order to capture a second straight Rose Bowl, Stanford will have to get past the top defense in the nation. (USATSI)

A trip to Pasadena may be a little more special for Michigan State than it is for Stanford.

That's not to say the Cardinal have a been-there, done-that mentality after winning last year's Rose Bowl, but the Spartans haven't been to the historic venue in 26 years.

That will change New Year's Day when fourth-ranked Michigan State faces No. 5 Stanford in the 100th edition of the Granddaddy of Them All.

The Spartans (12-1) upset then-No. 2 Ohio State 34-24 in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 7 to win their first outright conference title since 1987, when they went on to beat Southern California in their previous Rose Bowl appearance.

Coach Mark Dantonio finally has led Michigan State to Pasadena after losing out on a BCS tiebreaker in 2010 and falling in a heartbreaker to Wisconsin in the inaugural conference title game the following season.

Dantonio hasn't coached in the Rose Bowl since he was a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 1984.

"It's going to be a special moment when we walk out on that field," Dantonio said. "When you set down and write down your goals and think about the goals in whatever job that you take or occupation, you're going to have some different things that you want to try to accomplish. That was one of the things we were trying to accomplish."

While this will mark Michigan State's first appearance in any BCS bowl, coach David Shaw has guided Stanford (11-2) to one of college football's marquee games in each of his three seasons since taking over for Jim Harbaugh in 2011.

The Cardinal won their first Rose Bowl in 40 years when they beat Wisconsin 20-14 last season. Though Shaw appreciates last year's experience, he knows his players are treating this contest as if they've never been there before.

"Our guys have fond memories of it, but they've already started to say it: 'Last year was last year, and we have to prepare this year completely different,'" Shaw said. "Michigan State has been on a phenomenal run, tough competition, and has come to play every week. We know it's going to be a great game."

The Spartans, who last were ranked this high in the AP poll when they were No. 3 to begin the 1967 season, have won nine straight since suffering their only loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 21. They've done so mainly behind a defense that ranks first in the nation with 248.2 yards allowed per game, including an FBS-low 80.8 on the ground.

Michigan State did not allow a touchdown in five of its six games prior to facing the Buckeyes. Senior Darqueze Dennard was named a first-team All-American and won the Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back, while sophomore end Shilique Calhoun was honored as the Big Ten's top defensive lineman.

The Spartans will be without a key member of their defense, however, after senior linebacker Max Bullough was suspended Wednesday for violating team rules. Dantonio did not say what rules the two-time team captain violated.

Bullough had 76 tackles and 9 1/2 tackles for loss this season, earning him third-team All-America honors and first-team All-Big Ten honors. He has 299 career tackles and made 40 consecutive starts.

"It is extremely disappointing for all parties involved," Dantonio said.

With Michigan State's defensive success came overtures from other schools potentially looking to hire defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, winner of the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant, for their head coaching positions. Narduzzi withdrew himself from consideration for Connecticut's opening to remain on Dantonio's staff.

"It's my hope to keep our entire staff together," Dantonio said. "To have Coach Narduzzi remain here is a tremendous asset."

Dantonio quickly quelled any rumors surrounding himself for other positions, most notably the Texas vacancy.

"I see Michigan State as the destination, not a stop," he said. "It's flattering, but that's the way I see it."

Shaw has been rumored for potential openings in the NFL due to his success with the Cardinal, but he said he remains committed to stay at his alma mater. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford will be coaching his final game with the school after taking the job at Boise State.

"No matter what I say, the rumors aren't going to stop," Shaw said. "It doesn't bother me. Every good football program in the last 15 years, after two good years, the head coach is going to be rumored to go someplace else. I take it as a compliment."

Stanford earned its trip to the Rose Bowl with a 38-14 win over then-No. 11 Arizona State in the Pac-12 title game Dec. 7, though it may have been in Pasadena for the national title game Jan. 6 if not for a few letdowns.

The Cardinal were upset twice by unranked teams: 27-21 at Utah on Oct. 12 and 20-17 at USC on Nov. 16.

"It's hard to win them all, and then when you don't win one, the next challenge is to come back that next week and not let one loss become two losses in a row," Shaw said. "We had two losses this year, and both those losses were followed up by great performances. To come back and win, I think it shows the character of the team that you have."

Stanford seems to stack up well against Michigan State's stout run defense after averaging 234.2 yards on the ground in its last five. Tyler Gaffney ran for 133 yards and three TDs in the conference title game, and he's averaged 144.5 yards over his last eight.

The offensive line features senior guard David Yankey, who was named a unanimous first-team All-American. He was a consensus first-team selection last season at tackle.

"This team, they're so wily as veterans," Shaw said. "We're going to be challenged by a team that finds ways to win, whether it's run or throw. They'll do whatever it takes to try to win a football game."

Michigan State's offense often has left something to be desired, ranking ninth in the Big Ten with an average of 384.6 total yards, though sophomore Connor Cook threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns in the conference championship game to earn MVP honors.

Junior Jeremy Langford has 13 touchdowns while averaging 128.4 rushing yards during an eight-game streak of running for at least 104.

Stanford first-team All-American linebacker Trent Murphy will attempt to help slow the Spartans' attack, while quarterback Kevin Hogan will be tasked with helping move the ball on Michigan State's imposing defense.

Hogan, though, has attempted 20 or fewer passes in seven contests this season as Stanford has relied heavily on its ground game. Its 293 pass attempts are by far the fewest in the Pac-12.

These teams last met when the Cardinal beat the Spartans 38-0 in the 1996 Sun Bowl.

More Team Talk