Rose Bowl previews: Stanford vs. Michigan State
Although Michigan State is ranked higher than the Cardinal, there are lot of things going in Stanford's favor in the lead up to the game -- and not just the point spread (Stanford is about -3 in most sports books).
--Stanford will be making it's fourth consecutive BCS bowl appearance. The Cardinal blew out Virginia Tech in the 2011 Orange Bowl, lost in overtime to Oklahoma State in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl and defeated Wisconsin in last year's Rose Bowl. With a win, Stanford would win consecutive Rose Bowls for the first time since 1971 and 1972.
--While Stanford has a bevy of big-game experience, Michigan State last played in a Rose Bowl in 1988 -- a 20-17 win over USC.
--The Cardinal and Spartans last met in the 1996 Sun Bowl, when Stanford, led by Tyrone Willingham, defeated a Nick Saban-coached Michigan State squad 38-0.
--The Cardinal and the Spartans had one common opponent this season: Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish handed the Spartans their only loss of the season--a 17-13 defeat in South Bend back in September. Meanwhile, the Cardinal beat Notre Dame 27-20 at Stanford on Nov. 30
--The biggest news out of either program in the lead up to Wednesday's game is the suspension of Michigan State's star linebacker, Max Bullough. Bullough is the leader of one of the best defenses in the nation and it is impossible to know how his surprising suspension will impact the Spartan defense.
--From the Stanford camp, no news is good news when it comes to head coach David Shaw, who has reiterated all week that he is not interested in any other coaching job, either in the NCAA or NFL. His name has been rumored as a possibility for a number of openings across the country.
--Another story line to watch is the Big Ten's bowl performance (or lack thereof) so far. Michigan State is supposed to be the class of the Big Ten -- can it save the conference from complete embarrassment this bowl season? So far, current Big Ten teams are 0-2 in bowls, which balloons to 0-4 if you include teams set to join the conference next year. With games left against three formidable SEC foes, Stanford and Clemson, it is shaping up to be another year with the B1G looking bad. A Spartan win in the Rose Bowl would go a long way to quell that. Meanwhile, the Pac 12, which was favored in all nine of its bowl games, is 3-1 so far, with the only loss coming on Washington State's choke job in the New Mexico Bowl.
--Who will have the crowd advantage? Both teams sold out their ticket allotments in minutes, and tickets are hard to come by and expensive on the secondary market. There are reports of more than 50,000 Michigan State fans traveling to Pasadena, and some Spartan fans reportedly put down deposit on Stanford season tickets next season to secure some of Stanford's allotment. Cardinal don't have to travel as far, but many made the trek last year. Will they return? (This Cardinal fan will, for what it's worth...)
Players to watch
Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney: Stanford uses a lot of smoke and mirrors (i.e. formations, personnel groupings and motion), but it is no secret what the Cardinal wants to do on offense: pound the football to set up play action. After a year away from the team playing minor league baseball, Gaffney is back with the Cardinal to try and win his first Rose Bowl (he watched and celebrated last season's win). In what is his last college game, and perhaps his last football game, expect Stanford to give it to their workhorse a lot. Gaffney had 45 carries in Stanford's upset of No. 3 Oregon this season, and for the year he has 306 carries for 1,618 yards and 20 TDs. Not bad for a guy who didn't play football last year. If you want to learn more about Tyler Gaffney, I suggest this feature from Grantland.
Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford: What Gaffney is to Stanford, Langford is to Michigan State. If the Spartans are to move the ball against Stanford's formidable front seven, Langford will need to do some tough running -- which is exactly what he has done this season. For the year 269 carries for 1,338 yards and 17 touchdowns. Most impressively though is how he finished the year. Langford has rushed for over 100 yards in eight straight games entering the Rose Bowl, and has scored touchdowns in seven of those eight games.
Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy: All Murphy did this season was lead the nation in sacks and yards lost on tackles for loss. Still, somehow, he was not on some First-Team All-America teams and was not the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. "The Yeti" as he is nicknamed, impacts the game in a number of ways. When he can't get to the passer he is deft at batting passes down, and sometimes he holds on to them (he has two pick-sixes in his career). Murphy is the best player on one of the best defenses in the nation.
Michigan State middle linebacker Kyler Ellsworth: Ellsworth will be thrown into the spotlight as the replacement starter for the suspended Bullough. While he doesn't have the star power of Bullough, Ellsworth is a fifth-year senior who has experience on the field and should be in the right place at the right time. Fortunately or unfortunately for Ellsworth, his play in his last collegiate game will be right under the microscope because of Bullough's suspension.
Prediction: I have already gone on record predicting Stanford to win (as know surprise, I am sure), and I am not changing that now. I think the Spartans will struggle to move the ball and the Cardinal will grind out enough drives to win. Stanford 24, Michigan State 7.