PASADENA, Calif. – Stanford had to answer many questions about Michigan State’s top-ranked defense since the 100th Rose Bowl matchup was announced a few weeks ago.
How would they score on a team that held six opponents to six points or fewer? How would a Cardinal team that thrives on its running game fair against an opponent that yielded only 80.5 yards per game on the ground?
Stanford ran on five of the game’s first seven plays, right into the teeth of the nation’s best rushing defense, and completed a 43-yard pass on the second play of the game against a secondary with a “No Fly Zone” nickname. Seventy-seven yards later, the Cardinal were celebrating in the end zone in just three minutes and 44 seconds.
On its next drive, Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney gained 47 yards on one rush – the fourth-longest against Sparty all season – en route to a 34-yard field goal.
“How was that so easy?”
If you shut your televisions off or left the Rose Bowl at that point, you’d be left asking yourself those questions the rest of the night. But you’d be terribly surprised at what transpired. Gaffney’s 16-yard touchdown run was the only Stanford offensive touchdown of the day in a 24-20 loss, ending Stanford’s try for back-to-back Rose Bowl victories.
Stanford’s offense seemed to disappear just as the Southern California sun did the same over the San Gabriel Mountains. Maybe the 78-degree air was too warm for the boys from East Lansing and they needed a little more crispness in the air. Whatever it was, frustrated Stanford to no end beginning in the second quarter.
“I don’t want to say we were tourists in the first half, in the first part of it, but we didn’t have our flash, emotions that we usually have,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. “We recollected ourselves; we’re a very resilient football team.”
When they showed that “flash”, they never relinquished it thanks to some in-game adjustments.
“We have a lot of experience,” Dantonio said. “We have guys who have been there. Our coaching staff has been together so we’re able to do adjust and tweak things mid-stream during games to create situations that will eliminate a play if it’s made. We just tweaked things. Our scheme – our package – is versatile enough to move in different directions and change things and still do things.”
Numbers never lie. After rushing for 91 yards in the first quarter against a team that hadn’t allowed a team to rush for more than 100 yards until Week 12 against Nebraska, Stanford could only muster 10 in the second, 11 in the third and 50 in the fourth. Gaffney gained just seven yards on 13 carries after his long of 47.
Things through the air weren’t much better for quarterback Kevin Hogan against a Michigan State secondary which came in allowing opponents to complete 23 percent of their passes thrown 15 yards or longer. Hogan completed only 10 passes for 143 yards. Take away his first pass of the game and his 51-yard completion later in the game, and he was 8-of-16 for 49 yards.
The big play just wasn’t there.
“They have nine in the box,” Gaffney explained about Michigan State’s defensive front. “They leave their cornerbacks out there for one-on-one coverage, and maybe a couple more deep balls would have been helpful in the run game, but it just came down to they played well. They made adjustments after the first couple runs, first couple drives, and we didn’t respond like we needed to.”
Even when it seemed the Cardinal were catching a break, they weren’t. Trailing 24-17 with a little more than four minutes remaining, a botched snap on a field goal led to what looked like an incredible first down. Holder Ben Rhyne rolled to his right and completed a pass to Trent Murphy inside the Michigan State 10-yard line.
But there was a flag on Stanford – illegal procedure – that negated the play. They’d settle for a 39-yard field goal from Jordan Williamson.
Despite complete offensive ineptitude for the better part of three quarters, Stanford’s own defense gave its offense one last shot thanks to a quick three-and-out by quarterback Connor Cook and the Sparty offense.
Stanford still had a chance to win the Rose Bowl. Hogan and his offense took the field with 3:06 remaining on the clock at their own 25-yard line. The drive was a microcosm of almost every series the Cardinal had in the final three quarters. Four rushes for nine yards, including one final run by fullback Ryan Hewitt on fourth down when he was stuffed by MSU linebacker Kyler Elsworth – named the game’s defensive MVP.
“It was the play call,” Shaw said of the final play. “It looked initially like we were going to get the push, and then we got stopped up front. When I don’t [run the ball on fourth down] everybody goes crazy. I’m going to put the ball in the hands of our guys and pit it on the offensive line. We got beat today by a really good football team.”
The sun had completely set on the Rose Bowl and Stanford’s offense.