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Rose Bowl Preview and Prediction: Stanford vs. Michigan State

Michigan State Spartans

This Rose Bowl should be played without facemasks or the forward pass. And it would make Bear Bryant proud.

Michigan State and Stanford are two of the most physical, old school teams in the nation and they will square off in the greatest bowl there has ever been. The Granddaddy of Them All will remind old football fans of the days of yore when the four horsemen and student body right ruled the field.

The Spartans are making their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1987 upset of Rodney Peete and USC, while Stanford is returning to Pasadena to defend its crown as Rose Bowl champions after toppling Wisconsin in last year’s edition.

Both teams play disciplined physical defense and love to run the football. And both teams were one brutally close loss away from playing for the national championship. This game has history, tradition, pageantry, talent, physicality and the I-formation. It will be a throwback for the ages and could be the most physical game fans have seen all season.

These two programs have met five times with Michigan State holding a narrow 3-2 edge. They played four times between 1955 and 1962 but only once since then — a 38-0 Stanford win in the 1996 Sun Bowl.

Michigan State vs. Stanford

Kickoff: Wednesday, Jan. 1. at 5:10 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Stanford -5.5

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Three Things to Watch

Michigan State's senior defenders
Mark Dantonio’s defense is headlined by a senior class that is one of the best assembled in Big Ten history. But they will be down one critical performer as senior captain middle linebacker Max Bullough has been suspended for the game. Denicos Allen, Isaiah Lewis, Darqueze Dennard, Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover have worked their entire college careers to reach this game, and the emotion of the moment could play a huge role for the Spartans even without their leader in the middle. This group is disciplined and physical and could be the first Rose Bowl champs in East Lansing in over 25 years, making the Bullough suspension that much more difficult to swallow. To a player like Bullough, whose family is entrenched in MSU lore, this situation is as painful — and pivotal — as any suspension in any bowl game. Dantonio said senior Kyler Elsworth and sophomore Darien Harris are splitting first-team reps at middle linebacker in practice and there is still no word as to why Bullough won't play. This game is business as usual for Stanford while the gravity of the situation may help the Spartans — if they can overcome the loss of their captain and calm the early game jitters that are likely to abound on the Michigan State sideline.

Stanford's balance on offense
Tyler Gaffney was a Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year candidate after carrying his team to huge wins over Oregon, Arizona State (twice), Notre Dame, Washington and UCLA. But Kevin Hogan and the passing game will have to be effective and productive, especially on key third downs in the second half. Ty Montgomery can make big plays and Devon Cajuste is a gritty pass catcher, and both will be called upon to help create offensive balance against a defense geared up to stop the run. As Ohio State learned in the Big Ten title game, Michigan State will force your quarterback to make plays down the field so Kevin Hogan will have to be good for Stanford to win. 

Big plays on special teams
Special teams will play a huge role in what could be a low-scoring tightly played affair. Mark Dantonio isn’t opposed to some fake punts and trick plays on special teams and won’t be afraid to take risks to win MSU’s first Rose Bowl since ’87. He also has a freshman kicker who has only missed once in his career (15-of-16). David Shaw has a senior place kicker in Jordan Williamson but he’s only attempted three kicks in the final four games. This is where Ty Montgomery could become a game-changer. The speedy wide receiver makes big plays on offense but can also flip a game’s momentum on special teams as well. The oft-forgotten third phase of the game is likely to be a deciding factor.

Key Player: Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
Many view Dantonio’s team as a ground and pound type of offense. And to some extent that is true, as Jeremy Langford was one of the most critical running backs in the Big Ten this fall. However, when games where on the line, quarterback Connor Cook proved he was no game-manager. With deft touch and underrated athletic ability, Cook delivered the best game of his career against Ohio State as the MVP of the Big Ten title game. He threw for 304 yards and three critical touchdowns in the win. Cook finished the year with 2,423 yards and 20 touchdowns with just five interceptions in 344 attempts. He could be the difference maker in a historic season for Michigan State, and he didn’t even begin the season as the starter in East Lansing.

Final Analysis

This is a throwback game that old school fans dream about getting to see on a stage like this. These teams are identical with elite senior leaders on defense, a fantastic physical running back on offense, the potential for big plays on special teams, two hard-nosed discipline coaches and a conference championship under their belts for 2013. Get the ice baths and saunas ready in Pasadena because both teams will need them after this battle. Stanford has the experience edge while Michigan State carries the motivation/hunger edge. One fake punt for Michigan State or big return for Stanford will be the difference.

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Prediction: Stanford 24, Michigan State 23