This Wednesday, New Years Day, the No. 4 Big Ten Champion Michigan State Spartans (12-1, 8-0) will square off against the No. 5 Pac-12 Champion Stanford Cardinal (11-2, 7-2) in the 100th annual Rose Bowl game.
Kickoff is scheduled for 5:00 PM ET and will be televised on ESPN.
For the Cardinal, they return to Pasadena after winning last year’s Rose Bowl over the Wisconsin Badgers by a score of 20-14, while the Spartans are making their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1988, when they defeated the USC Trojans, 20-17.
Both teams play similar styles of football. With both teams having hard-nosed, tough defenses and formidable offenses that like to run first and pass second. When it comes right down to it, it certainly looks like a matchup that’s about as even as it gets.
Here’s a look to see who should have the advantages where come kickoff on Wednesday:
Michigan State Rushing Offense vs. Stanford Rushing Defense Advantage: Stanford
Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford has had a breakout year this season on the ground for the Spartans. At the beginning of the year, there was a huge question as to who would be able to replace the productivity of workhorse running back Le’Veon Bell, but Langford has certainly stepped up.
With a healthy offensive line that has had a good push all year long to aid him, the junior running back who was playing defense a few years ago has topped 100 yards in eight straight games en route to an impressive 1,338-yard, 17 touchdown season.
However, as good as Langford has been this year, there is no question that this Cardinal rushing defense will be the best he has seen all year. Led by a trio of senior linebackers in Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, and AJ Tarpley, the Stanford rushing defense ranks third in the country, where they give up just 91.2 yards per game on the ground, which includes a game where they held a very potent Oregon rushing attack to just 62 yards rushing, an offense that averages 278.3 yards in the category.
While Langford has been a model of consistency this year on the ground for the Spartans, look for the experienced Cardinal defense to hold a slight advantage in this category.
Michigan State Passing Offense vs. Stanford Passing Defense Advantage: Push
At the beginning of the season, Michigan State saw very little from its passing attack. With a rotating carousel at the quarterback position that saw three different players take snaps from under center in the first two weeks as well as an inexperienced corps of receivers failing to make plays, things didn’t look good for the Spartans.
However, as Michigan State sophomore quarterback Connor Cook continued to improve and gain more confidence as the year went on, so did his receivers. Couple that with a very stout offensive line that has given Cook time to throw all year – crucial for a young quarterback – and yes, this Michigan State passing attack is now officially a force to be reckoned with.
As for the Stanford passing defense, while the numbers suggest that they have at times been vulnerable to the passing game, a bit of that can likely be attributed to the fact that they took on a few pass happy offenses this season that were playing from behind.
Whether or not this Michigan State offensive line can continue to give Cook time to throw and stop senior linebacker Trent Murphy from getting to the quarterback – who leads the nation with 14 sacks – will play a key role in the outcome of this game.
If the offensive line can do that, give the advantage to Michigan State in this one. If not, give it to Stanford. Call this one too close to call.
Stanford Rushing Offense vs. Michigan State Rushing Defense Advantage: Michigan State
This is where it gets interesting.
How will this Spartan defense respond with the loss of their suspended captain and leader Max Bullough?
For the large part of this season, Michigan State has been the absolute best rushing defense in the country. Giving up just over 80 yards per game on the ground, the Spartan defense didn’t allow a team to run for over 100 yards in a game until the tenth game of the season.
On the flip side though, this Spartan defense is coming off of a game in which they gave up 273 yards on the ground to Ohio State, and they are about to go up against a Stanford rushing attack that racks up 210 yards a game, a large chunk of these yards gained by senior running back Tyler Gaffney.
Gaffney is in the midst of a 300+ carry season that has resulted in a monstrous 1,618-yard, 20 touchdown season, and a rested up Gaffney in the Rose Bowl could end up being a huge plus in this one for the Cardinal.
While the loss of Bullough does put an interesting twist in this matchup for Michigan State, one player does not shape this Spartan defense. Expect the best rushing defense in the country to be in tip-top shape come New Years Day.
Stanford Passing Offense vs. Michigan State Passing Defense Advantage: Michigan State
Another part of Michigan State’s defense that ranks among the best in the country, the Spartan passing defense has truly been somewhat of a “No Fly Zone” this season, a term that was coined by senior corner back and Jim Thorpe award winner Darqueze Dennard in the offseason.
No passing attack has thrown for more than 259 yards on the Spartans this season as they have also proven to have a very opportunistic secondary, having intercepted 16 passes on the season.
Stanford junior quarterback Kevin Hogan has been a very reliable passer this season for the Cardinal this year and definitely has experience riding on his side, having started at quarterback in Stanford’s Rose Bowl victory last year over Wisconsin.
Containing Stanford play making wide out Ty Montgomery will be another key in this game for the Spartans, a guy who has averaged over 16 yards per reception this season and is by far Hogan’s favorite target, having caught 30 more passes than any other receiver on the Stanford team.
Michigan State Special Teams vs. Stanford Special Teams Advantage: Stanford
The kicking game of both teams has been stellar all season with MSU’s freshman Michael Geiger connecting on 14/15 of his field goals while Stanford’s Jordan Williamson is 16/20.
For the Spartans, their main weapon in the special teams game would have to be junior punter Mike Sadler, who has time and time again pinned his opponents inside their own ten yard line, doing so 22 times on the season. Sadler has also shown the ability to make some things happen on a few trick plays over the course of his career, having ran the ball three times for a total of 54 yards and three first downs the past couple of seasons for Michigan State.
But the thing that is likely to give Stanford a bit of an edge in this match up is the return game. Adding to his threat in the receiving game, junior Ty Montgomery averages over 30 yards per kick return and has twice brought it all the way back for six.
Overall Advantage: Push
As stated before, this one appears to be as close as it gets. Both Mark Dantonio’s Spartans and David Shaw’s Cardinal are both extremely well coached teams. The stage is set for the 100th Rose Bowl game and it has all the makings of being a great one.
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