The Michigan State Spartans spoiled the perfect season of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game, punching their ticket to the Rose Bowl Game this January. They were able to make their incredible run to Pasadena this season thanks to a stifling defense that was able to disrupt opposing offenses, particularly their running game. That tough-minded rush defense will be the edge that Michigan State needs to come out on top when they face the Stanford Cardinal at the Rose Bowl on January 1.
Michigan State ranks as the No. 1 team in total defense this season in all of college football thanks to their top-ranked rushing defense allowing just 80.77 yards per game this season. Through 13 games, they have surrendered just seven rushing touchdowns and opponents have been unable to get their running games on track, averaging a meager 2.70 yards per carry against the Sparty D. They held 10 of their opponents to less than 100 yards rushing as a team this season, highlighted by their suffocating performance against the Michigan Wolverines where MSU held their in-state rival to negative-48 yards rushing on the day.
That defense will be tested by Stanford, however. The Cardinal have developed an identity as a hard-nosed, physical team that will line up and run the ball down the throat of the defense. Led by running back Tyler Gaffney and a tough offensive line, Stanford establishes the pace of the game with their grinding running attack, wearing down a defense as the game goes along. Gaffney ranks No. 9 in the nation, averaging 125.08 yards per game as the hammer that breaks through defenders for the Stanford offense. He’s developed into a workhorse for the Cardinal, racking up 1,626 yards and 20 touchdowns on the season.
The key for Michigan State is to keep Gaffney and that Stanford running game contained. If they can keep the running game from churning out first downs as they grind down the field, it will force the Cardinal into more difficult third-down situations where they will have to rely on quarterback Kevin Hogan to throw them to victory, which is something he hasn’t proven capable of consistently yet in his career. The Spartans have the defensive front to get it done, as they have all season long.
So when the Rose Bowl comes around, who will come out on top; The physical Stanford offensive line or the dominant Michigan State defensive front? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining this season’s Rose Bowl winner.