GAME NOTES: A top-five matchup is on tap for the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl, as the fifth-ranked Stanford Cardinal battle the fourth-ranked Michigan State Spartans.
Stanford brings an 11-2 record into this contest, as the team won its second straight Pac-12 Conference championship by taking out Arizona State in the league's title tilt, 38-14. As a result, the Cardinal are appearing in their second consecutive Rose Bowl, and their fourth straight BCS bowl game overall. Stanford beat Wisconsin in last year's Rose Bowl, 20-14.
Stanford has won 33 of its last 35 games played in the state of California, and the team is 11-12-1 all-time in bowl games. The Cardinal is 6-6-1 in the Rose Bowl, with the bulk of its appearances (eight) coming between 1902 and 1941.
Stanford is 15-42-3 all-time against top-five foes, but 7-5 since 2000. Stanford is 10-0 in its last 10 games against opponents ranked in the AP Top-25, including 6-0 this season.
Michigan State sports an even more impressive 12-1 record, and the team won the Big Ten Conference crown by handing Ohio State its first loss in two years in the league's championship game (34-24). For their efforts, the Spartans are appearing in their first BCS bowl game, and the fifth Rose Bowl in their history. The team is 3-1 in the Rose Bowl all-time, with the most recent appearance taking place back in 1988.
MSU has played in 23 previous bowl games, going 9-14, and the team is seeking a school-record third straight bowl victory after beating Georgia in the 2012 Outback Bowl, 33-30, in triple-overtime.
Michigan State owns a 3-2 series advantage over Stanford, but has lost the last two matchups, the most recent of which occurred in the 1996 Sun Bowl (38-0).
Stanford wasn't the most potent offensive team in the Pac-12 this season, the team averaging 33.2 points and 413.1 yards per game, but it was efficient in handling its business, scoring on 90 percent of its trips to the red zone, while converting more than half of its third-down opportunities.
Balance was the key for the Cardinal, as quarterback Kevin Hogan completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 2,487 yards, 20 TDs and nine interceptions, with wide receiver Ty Montgomery serving as the team's primary pass catcher in logging 58 grabs for 937 yards and 10 scores. Senior Tyler Gaffney spearheaded Stanford's rushing attack by gaining 1,618 yards and crossing the goal line 20 times -- the former ranking him third in the conference, and the latter first.
Stanford's real strength this season was on the defensive side of the ball, as the club ranked atop the Pac-12 in points allowed (18.6), while doing a particularly impressive job of stopping the run (91.2 ppg, seven TDs) -- both of which also rank the team No. 1 in the conference.
Senior linebacker Shayne Skov was one of nine players in the Pac-12 to hit the century mark in total tackles this season, logging an even 100, 10 of which were behind the line of scrimmage. As solid as Skov was, it was a banner year for veteran linebacker Trent Murphy, who was credited with a whopping 14 sacks, 21.5 TFL, two forced fumbles and an INT. Strong safety Jordan Richards has three picks to lead the team, and Stanford has made 40 sacks this season.
Much like their counterpart, the Spartans too relied heavily on a dominant defense to help them reach the vast majority of their goals this season. That's not to say the offense didn't do its part though, as the unit accounted for 29.8 points and 384.6 yards per tilt. A balanced effort was also part of its game plan, as Michigan State averaged 182.2 ypg on the ground and 202.5 ypg through the air, with near equal totals coming in touchdowns (22 rushing, 21 passing).
Junior running back Jeremy Langford was the unquestioned star of the MSU offense, rushing for 1,338 yards and a Big Ten-best 17 TDs. He was one of the seven backs in the conference to go over 1,000 yards for the season, and one of five to average more than 100 yards per outing. As for the aerial attack, sophomore signal caller Connor Cook had a solid, if unspectacular campaign, hitting 58.4 percent of his passes for 2,423 yards, 20 TDs and only five interceptions. Junior Tony Lippett and sophomore Macgarrett Kings both tallied 39 catches during the regular season, combining for 980 yards and only four scores, while senior Bennie Fowler picked up 525 yards and six TDs on 34 grabs.
The Spartans have held down the nation's top spot in terms of total defense just about all season long, yielding a mere 248.2 ypg, with near-equal stinginess coming against both the run (80.8 ypg, seven TDs) and the pass (167.4 ypg, 12 TDs). As a result, foes are scoring just 12.7 ppg, which ranks the team fifth nationally. The unit, which has surrendered a grand total of 29 points in the first quarter of its 13 games, has also proven to be opportunistic by coming up with 31 sacks and 27 turnovers.
Several Michigan State defensive players picked up conference and national honors for their outstanding effort this season. Senior linebacker Denicos Allen (91 tackles, 15.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks) has been the most active defender, and the unit also features standout performers in junior safety Kurtis Drummond (86 tackles, four INTs), senior linebacker Max Bullough (76 tackles, 9.5 TFL), senior corner Darqueze Dennard (59 tackles, four INTs) and sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun (14.0 TFL, 7.5 sacks). Unfortunately, Bullough will not play in the Rose Bowl after being suspended for a violation of team rules.
Following the huge win over Ohio State to win the Big Ten, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio was asked to look ahead and talk about the similarities between these two teams.
"They are an extremely well coached football team. They're going to be a balanced football team. They're going to have a pro style offense, a great thrower, great catcher, great runner, a big, tough offensive line, and they've won."
Stanford head coach David Shaw echoed Dantonio's sentiment, and also spoke briefly about playing in this game for the second straight year.
"We are very excited about this trip to Pasadena. 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. We're playing a different team. Michigan State has been on a phenomenal run, nine straight games, tough competition, and has come to play every week, and we know it's going to be a great game."
This bout pits two top-notch defenses against each other, thus making it difficult for each offense to establish any kind of consistent rhythm. Both have excellent running backs though, so there will likely be some big plays. In the end, give the edge to the Cardinal who will win their second straight Rose Bowl, further cementing themselves as one of the top teams in the country.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Stanford 27, Michigan State 24