The Michigan State Spartans take on the Stanford Cardinals for the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl. Playing in their first Rose Bowl in 25 years, the Spartans may appear to be outmatched by the Stanford Cardinals. This is the fourth year in a row the Cardinals have been invited to a BCS bowl games, and they’ll be returning to the Rose Bowl for a second year in a row.
Despite the recent BCS history, the Cardinals have only opened as a 3.5 point favorite. Michigan State is currently ranked #4 in the BCS poll while Stanford is ranked #5. While MSU has steadily risen in the BCS poll all year, Stanford opened the year #5 and has fought back after two mid-season losses.
If we ignore the rankings and look at the merits of the team, this may be the most interesting match up of any bowl game this season. Stanford has touted the defense that stopped Oregon the last two years. After quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick lit up the League with their reinvented mobile quarterback offense, it’s been reported that pro coaches traveled to Stanford to learn how to stop the read-option offense.
However, the Spartans have been making national press with their defense as well. It started with the quarterback controversies early in the year. The defense had literally won a few games for the team. After that, they were finding ways stop teams every week. Once they started conference play, the Spartans began winning games by 10 points or more. State’s defense also kept five of their conference opponents from scoring touch downs. This is the first Spartan team to win 8 conference games in the storied history of Spartan Football. Much of that credit is due to the play of the defense.
So, do the Spartans have of winning their first Rose Bowl in 25 years? Absolutely. Stanford has the distinct advantage of playing more large stage games on their side, having played four night games this season compared to the Spartan’s two. The Cardinals have also faced more ranked teams, six teams to be exact. The Spartans have only faced four ranked teams this season. However, when both teams played their only top 5 ranked opponent of the season, #2 Oregon and #2 OSU, both teams won. The Spartan’s only loss was at #22 Notre Dame while Stanford lost two conference away games.
Offensively speaking, the teams stack up similarly. Stanford’s starting quarterback Kevin Hogan is a hair better. Hogan throws slightly more accurate and has thrown for 54 more yards on fewer 30 fewer completions than MSU QB Connor Cook. However, Cook did not start all 13 games of the season and has thrown 4 fewer interceptions and as many TDs, 20, as Hogan.
However, both teams prefer to play a power running offenses. Comparing starting running backs, Tyler Gaffney has 280 more yards than Jeremy Langford but on 37 more carries. Gaffney averages 5.3 yards a carry, which is .3 yards more than Langford’s average and has 20 TDs compared to Langford’s 17.
I’d be a fool to argue that Michigan State’s offense was better than Stanford’s offense. However, the Spartan defense could be the trump card Michigan State will need to be the Cardinals. The Spartans and Cardinals have allowed only 7 rushing TDs each, but the Spartan defense allowed an average of 80.8 yards a game while the Cardinals allowed an average of 91.2 a game.
Due to the efforts of the secondary, MSU held their opponents to an average of 167.4 yards each game, which is 80 yards fewer than Stanford averaged. The Spartans allowed over 1000 less than Stanford’s 3221 total passing yard on the season.
Both teams have superb 3rd down conversion defenses. Spartans allowed only 27.7% of the 3rd downs to be converted against them while Stanford allowed 32.4%. Perhaps the biggest advantage MSU holds is the turnover margin. MSU is +14 while Stanford sits at -1.
If the teams play in the same style they have all year, it’ll be a great game of smash mouth football. MSU needs to get their offense going early if they want to keep up with Stanford. After that, they need to keep cool head; nerves and excitement are probably the biggest factors working against the Spartans. With a little luck and a turn over or two, MSU could win the Rose Bowl.