Based on what the Stanford football team does best, it wasn’t a shock that with the 100th edition of the recently-held Rose Bowl Game in the balance, the Cardinal opted to run the ball on fourth and one at their 34-yard line against Michigan State.
When fullback Ryan Hewitt was stuffed by linebacker Kyler Elsworth, who stepped in after senior Max Bullough was suspended for breaking team rules, for no gain and 1:43 showing, the Spartans, statistically the best defense versus the run, celebrated with a 24-20 victory in front of 95,173 fans.
“It’s a special time for all Spartans, and we came here in force,’’ said Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio, whose squad finished undefeated in the Big Ten Conference regular season with an 8-0 record. “I’m very happy for our football team, the resilience we showed all season long.”
This was the first Rose Bowl win for the Spartans since the 1987 season when tailback Lorenzo White helped lead Michigan State over USC, 20-17.
Stanford (11-3), which was seeking its second consecutive Rose Bowl triumph and was playing in its fourth straight Bowl Championship Series game, was outscored 10-3 in the second half after leading 10-0 with 1:40 left in the opening quarter.
The game-winner came when quarterback Connor Cook, named the Most Valuable Offensive Player, drilled wide receiver Tony Lippett (five catches for 94 yards) with a 25-yard toss over the middle and 13:22 remaining in the final quarter.
Michigan State (13-1) closed the campaign with 10 straight wins, and its only loss a four-point decision to Notre Dame.
“No, it was the play call. It looked initially like we were going to get the push, and then we got stopped up front,’’ said Stanford Head Coach David Shaw, whose team mustered 305 total net yards. “I’m going to put the ball in the hands of our guys and put it on the offensive line.”
Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan also played it close to the vest, hitting 10 of 18 for 143 yards and an interception.
Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney (game-high 91 yards on 24 rushes) capped a 77-yard, seven-play march with a 16-yard scamper and 11:16 showing in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.
“Everywhere I looked there were green defenders,’’ said Gaffney, who had a 47-yard romp in the opening half, but was nailed for a three-yard loss late in the third quarter with the score knotted at 17-17.
When Jordan Williamson converted a 34-yard field goal the No. 5 Cardinal (162 yards rushing) forged a 10-0 lead, but the Spartans rebounded when running back Jeremy Langford (team-high 84 yards on 23 carries) ran in from two yards out and 10:45 showing in the second quarter.
Williamson added a 39-yarder with 4:15 left in the fourth quarter that cut Michigan State’s lead to four points.
The No. 4 Spartans fell behind 17-7 when Cook (22 of 36 for a career-best 332 yards and one interception), under a fierce pass rush by defensive back Usua Amanam, was intercepted by linebacker Kevin Anderson, who returned it 40 yards for a score and 2:07 left in the second quarter.
Cook dusted himself off and got Michigan State (397 total yards) within three points after directing the Spartans 75 yards, capping the drive with a two-yard pass to fullback Trevon Pendleton as 28 seconds remained before the half.
Michael Geiger’s 31-yard field goal tied it at 17-17 with 12:56 left in the third quarter, and the key play was Cook’s 60-yard bomb to wide receiver Bennie Fowler (97 yards on two receptions).
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.