Win the 100-Yard Streak
Two teams with similar recipes for success will clash in this 100th Rose Bowl, and that makes for one heck of a "something's gotta give" match-up. Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford has recorded eight consecutive 100-yard rushing games. The Stanford defense, meanwhile, hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven straight contests.
Neither quarterback in this game is a world-beater, but both Connor Cook and Kevin Hogan have proven that they have the ability to roast opposing defenses when working with the backbone that a strong running game provides. That's why the war in the trenches is so important on January 1: Both offenses have tools to see success in this game, but only if they can establish rushing attacks to keep the respective defensive juggernauts at bay.
The Michigan State offensive formula boils down to establishing the run to neutralize opposing pass rushes (the Spartans have given up only 15 sacks this season), while the Stanford defensive formula is reliant on stopping the run so that their pass rush can be unleashed (the Cardinal again lead the nation with 40 sacks).
Along those lines, Langford's stat line should be very indicative of how this game is flowing. Stanford would obviously like to play on their terms, and that effort must start by stonewalling the rush up front. The battle will certainly stretch across multiple positions on the line, but Spartans' senior guard Blake Treadwell (No. 64, 6-3, 304 pounds) is one body to keep an eye on. It is likely that he'll frequently bruise against against Stanford mammoths David Parry, Josh Mauro, and Henry Anderson up front.
Pressure Connor Cook
The aforementioned fight up front carries massive importance, simply because only a precious few quarterbacks can succeed against a Stanford pass rush that's operating at full throttle, and Connor Cook likely isn't one of them. When the Cardinal eliminates the run, the Farm Boys' big bodies up front are free to use their imposing frames with only one destination in mind: the opposing quarterback. That formula has afforded Trent Murphy the freedom to be defensive coordinator Derek Mason's "joker" this year. He's lined up everywhere in the front seven, creating confusion and pass rush mismatches that have led to a nation-best 14 sacks.
Mason has created pressure through other means, too: Shayne Skov has blitzed aggressively in some games, while Kevin Anderson has provided a welcome complement to Murphy in getting after opposing quarterbacks. The exact blueprint can vary, but the end result must not: Stanford's defense has been successful this year when stopping the run and delivering a disciplined pass rush, one that restricts quarterbacks to the pocket and chokes the oxygen out of opposing offenses. While another repeat will be a challenge against the Spartans' sturdy front, it will be an integral step in creating a long New Year's Day for Michigan State.
Maintain an Intelligent Offensive Balance
Moving to the other side of the ball, the Spartans are obviously no slouches defensively, either. In fact, they lead the nation in total defense (248.2 yards allowed per game), opponents' yards per play (3.94), rushing defense (80.8 yards allowed per game), and opponents' third down conversion rate (27.7 percent). Of course, the Spartans have inflicted their damage against the weaker Big Ten conference, but it must be noted that their numbers are still supremely impressive and indicative of an explosive, fundamentally solid defense.
The core philosophy of Stanford's offense, though, should be reinforced -- and not altered -- because of the quality of opponent in this game. The Cardinal's offensive line is quite possibly the country's best, and the supporting cast of the attack's backbone is also littered with impressive weapons. The Farm Boys' ticket to success revolves around a firm commitment to the power running game, one that forces the opposing defense to over-commit bodies to the line of scrimmage. Because Hogan is so effective when working off the threat of play-action, it's no surprise that David Shaw's team has seen great offensive success when adhering to its bread and butter.
The Pac-12 Championship pasting of Arizona State was perhaps the finest example of the Stanford offensive formula: While the Cardinal ran 44 times and passed on only 18 plays, they made every single throw count by hitting the Sun Devils with strikes they were not prepared to defend (Hogan averaged 15.4 yards per attempt). When Arizona State was mentally and physically preoccupied with David Yankey, Andrus Peat, Tyler Gaffney, and the rest of Bloomgren's bruisers up front, receivers Devon Cajuste, Ty Montgomery, Michael Rector, and Jordan Pratt inflicted hurt of their own downfield. The Cardinal simply presented too many physically dominant options for Arizona State to contain, and the coaching staff did a masterful job of mixing and matching specific looks to amplify Stanford's many advantages.
Win the QB/Receiver Battle: Through the Air and On the Ground
Michigan State's defense features Darqueze Dennard, the nation's best cornerback, and a missile-like safety in Isaiah Lewis, so the Spartans may be willing to gamble against Stanford's power rushing attack while they attempt conceal the back end with single coverage from their studs in the "No Fly Zone." That's been the ticket for Mark Dantonio's squad this year, as linebackers Max Bullough (suspended for the Rose Bowl, see below) and Denicos Allen (91 tackles, 15 TFL) have used the freedom that Michigan State's secondary has supplied them to pound opponents underneath.
The Cardinal, though, have shown a third gear this season that can potentially throw the Spartans off balance: Kelsey Young and Ty Montgomery have both seen rushing success from the perimeter of the field. Stanford's receivers will obviously need to be on point in the passing game January 1, but it's very possible that they'll also be needed on at least a few sweeps and reverses to keep Michigan State on its heels in this contest. At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Cajuste especially is a big body that can swallow Michigan State's smaller defensive backs on run blocks downfield.
The Spartans have been excellent against the run throughout most of the season, but Ohio State exposed them to the tune of 273 yards on 40 carries (6.8 per carry). The Buckeyes employed a creatively diverse rushing attack to throw the Spartans' defense off-kilter, and Stanford will certainly consider borrowing some of Urban Meyer's ideas.
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller rushed for 142 yards on 21 carries against Michigan State. Though Hogan is not as prolific of a runner, the Cardinal have used him on zone read plays with increasing frequency over the past few weeks. He may well be an integral part of a Stanford rushing attack that will need some flavor and spice to complement its power bread-and-butter.
Maintain the Special Teams Edge
Advanced statistics rate Stanford as the no. 1 team in the country, ahead of even Florida State and Alabama. The Farm Boys' biggest statistical advantage comes in the special teams department. The Cardinal's unit is ranked no. 2 in the country, while Michigan State's specialists are no. 26. Turning this edge into a field position advantage can be the difference in a close game.
- As noted above, Michigan State senior middle linebacker Max Bullough, whose father and grandfather both played for the Spartans, has been suspended because of a violation of team rules. The team's third leading tackler, Bullough was considered the captain of the Spartans' defense and one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. ESPN dubbed him "The Computer" during a special earlier this season because of his ability to keep Michigan State's players aligned by making checks in response to offensive shifts and audibles. Shaw raved about Bullough's fundamental soundness before the suspension.
Senior Kyler Elsworth is next on the depth chart for Michigan State, but he's recorded only 10 tackles for the Spartans this year.
- Stanford players reconvene in the Bay Area today after a quick Christmas break. Michigan State arrived in Southern California on Wednesday. The Cardinal will land at LAX Thursday and immediately head to Disneyland for the Rose Bowl welcome press conference. The team will practice at the StubHub (formerly Home Depot) Center in Carson.
- A full State of Stanford report from earlier in this bowl preparation period can be found here. The program announced that Tavita Pritchard will be promoted to QB/WR coach after the Rose Bowl. That will fill Mike Sanford's vacancy when he departs to Boise State to become the Broncos' offensive coordinator.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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