On Friday, we previewed the enticing match-up between the Stanford offense and Michigan State defense. On Saturday morning, the opposite crews met reporters at the Rose Bowl Media Hotel: Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason brought along some of his troops to discuss the Farm Boys' match-up with the Spartans' offense.
Mark Dantonio's attack is certainly the weaker point of his team. Advanced statistics rank Michigan State's offense the 38th most efficient in the country (the Spartans' defense and special teams are ranked third and fifth, respectively). Still, the unit has been able to deliver enough to support its stellar defense to victory this season.
In Michigan State's 34-24 Big Ten championship victory over Ohio State, quarterback Connor Cook demonstrated a real ability to inflict damage through the air when given enough time to throw. Since the Spartans have rushed effectively (Jeremy Langford has posted eight consecutive 100-yard games), opposing pass rushes have been neutralized, and Cook has been sacked only 13 times this season. He has three targets who benefited from this protection and put up solid, albeit statistically similar seasons (Tony Lippett - 39 catches, 519 yards/MacGarrett Kings Jr. - 39 catches, 461 yards/Bennie Fowler - 34 catches, 525 yards).
"That's a testament to their quarterback," Usua Amanam told me. "He doesn't zero in on one guy. He finds the open man and lets him make plays."
The key to slowing the Spartans' attack, then, is not tricky. This is actually where the Cardinal appears to have a marked advantage in this game: Since Cook is not particularly mobile, a disciplined pass rush should put Stanford in position to control on the defensive end. No team has rushed the football effectively against Mason's unit since Utah offered a Salt Lake City surprise back in October, and there's really no available evidence suggesting Michigan State can give Stanford an inordinate amount of trouble if they cannot run the football. (If the Spartans can run, it's a different story.)
All eyes, then, turn to Langford and the big boys up front. If he can extend his 100-yard streak to nine games, Dantonio's team will be able to fight the Cardinal on even ground in this 100th Rose Bowl. The Stanford defense, though, hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven contests. This is the final game for Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Josh Mauro, and co. Let's see which side blinks first in this critical match-up.
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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