We’re not going to put a lot of fluff on top of this preview, because this game will prove to be the antithesis of what football fans have come to expect. Don’t be surprised when you see Stanford using formations that include as many as eight offensive linemen. Don’t be surprised if there aren’t 20 forward passes total. Don’t be surprised if you see Teddy Roosevelt in the stands, because this will be his kind of football.
As far as the series history between these two schools is concerned, Michigan State leads, 3-2. Stanford won the last meeting, 38-0, in the 1996 Sun Bowl.
We’re pretty sure they won’t actually wear leather helmets in the 100th installment of the Rose Bowl, but make no mistake…this will be Cro-Magnon, hairy-knuckled football with the plays drawn on the walls of each team’s respective caves. Michigan State earned its first trip to Pasadena since 1988 and its first taste of the BCS ever by using its stonewall defense to Rose Bowl cock-block the previously second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. For Stanford, the 2014 Rose Bowl is the Cardinal’s second in as many years, marking its first back-to-back trips to Pasadena since 1970 and 1971.
So, why will this look less like the passing-based modern football Americans have become used to in the last twenty years, and more like the first 20 minutes of “2001: A Space Odyssey?”
One reason is defense. We already touched on the fact that Michigan State has a defense that envelopes opponents is a punishing wave of green, and Stanford’s is very similar. Michigan State and Stanford boast the nation’s No. 1 and No. 3 rush defenses and the No. 4 and No. 10 scoring defenses respectively. That means they can both man up and control the line of scrimmage, and can make plays on top of it. In other words, they beat you by betting the shit out of you.
That’s why one of the HUGE keys to this game will come in the form of Michigan State’s “immovable object” against Stanford’s irresistible force” offense. Opponents averaged a miserly 80.8 yards per game on the ground against the Spartans, but Stanford’s human bulldozer offense is averaging 130.1 yards more per game than that. That’s why whoever controls the line of scrimmage will win this game.
Both of Stanford’s losses were against teams with a defense which bore more than a passing resemblance to that of the Spartans. Both Utah and USC featured an attacking style from the front seven to pressure Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan’s hands. On the other hand, Michigan State’s quarterback Connor Cook will also face a relentless front-end from Stanford’s defense.
The other thing that happens in a game like this is one big play can change everything, and both these teams have that kind of playmaker. Both offenses will try to grind with running backs Tyler Gaffney of Stanford and Jeremy Langford of Michigan State, but Michigan State has a difference maker in wide receiver Bennie Fowler. Fowler averages a little more than 15 yards per reception, but his six touchdowns include catches of 34, 37 and 87 yards.
That last fact leads us to the last key to this game; field position. Stanford made quick work of Arizona State in the Pac-12 Championship Game by scoring touchdowns on first-half possessions which all started on the Sun Devils side of the field. That also means that punters will prove to be a major factor, particularly Michigan State’s Mike Sadler. Spartan opponents have the fourth-worst average starting field position, thanks to Sadler’s 22 punts downed inside the 10-yard line. Sadler’s ability to reverse the field contributes to Michigan State’s defensive game plan.
The Bottom Line:
Vegas likes Stanford by a field goal, and we agree. In fact, here’s what we said in our preview piece.
Forget about Michigan State losing its defensive leader to a suspension. The match-up between the Spartans and Stanford promises to me a defensive struggle of the first order. It really can’t be anything other than that. Theoretically, the Cardinal offense could be run in a phone booth; we’re not sure they even understand the concept of running outside the tackles. The sort of attack will literally run headlong into a Michigan State defense that would put 14 guys on the field if the rules allowed.
Boil it all down to Rose Bowl gravy, and what you get is a game that will look an awful lot like two sloths trying to open a coconut by pounding it with a rock. The red sloth wins by a field goal.
Having said that, it would be awesome to set up some prop bets on this game, like Over/Under on Total Pass Attempts, Total Punts, and total Fumbles. The real Over/Under on this game is 42.5.
Bet that if you dare.