NGSC Sports

Rose Bowl Preview – Stanford to Take Down Michigan State in Hard-Hitting Affair

Stanford Vs Michigan State

6:45 PM ET

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Stanford Offense:

Want to see stout defense? Power running? Selective passing? Possibly the shortest game in the long history of bowl games? Then step right up, this is the bowl for you. Neither of these teams are going to wow you with trickery, as both are content to pound opponents into the turf. The Cardinals have been running their system for some time now, and are just as content to line up with 3 tight ends and ground out drives as spread defenses out. The key to this an outstanding offensive line, led by all-American David Yankey, which boasts an all-PAC 12 cast. Cameron Fleming, Andrus Peat and Khalil Wilkes all made the conference second team unit. The man who has the pleasure of running behind this unit is Tyler Gaffney, a senior who took a year off to play minor-league baseball (State College Spikes). When he decided to return to Stanford, he won the starting job in camp, where his 220-pound physique was perfect for an offense lacking Stepfan Taylor. Gaffney barrelled his way to 9 100-yard games, finishing with 1626 yards and 20 TDs on 307 carries, and added another score through the air. His backup, Anthony Wilkerson (84-353-2), didn’t see as much action down the stretch, but he’s good for a few carries every game, and is effective. Quarterback Kevin Hogan (75-306-2) is a threat when he takes off, while receiver Ty Montgomery (13-159-2) is explosive on reverses.

Hogan is also underrated as a passer. While he’s rightly labelled with the dreaded “game manager” tag, he does exactly what he is asked to do – move the chains and don’t leave the defense in a bad spot. He threw for 88 yards in a win over Oregon State (8 of 18), but also threw for 329 yards and 5 TDs against Cal (but who doesn’t).  Hogan has had his off-days, particularly in losing efforts to Utah and USC, but he’s a nice complement to the offense. He completed 61.4% of his passes for 2492 yards and 20 TDs, although he also threw 9 interceptions. Surprisingly, this season tight ends were less of a factor in the passing game than in recent years. Instead, Hogan found a glittery new toy to play with in junior Ty Montgomery, who had a breakout year. Montgomery caught 58 passes for 937 yards and 10 scores, and flashed big play talent. His running mate, Devin Cajuste, was injured against UCLA, his best game of the season, and missed some time. While he hasn’ been as effective since, he should heal up some more in time for the bowl game. Cajuste only finished with 27 catches, but he gained 591 yards and scored 5 times. The offensive line struggled a little in protecting Hogan in the PAC 12 title game, allowing 4 sacks, but only allowed a total of 15 on the season.

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Michigan State Defense:

Facing an effective power offense can be daunting for most teams, but luckily for MSU, the Spartans defense is the defensive equivalent. The unit was the primary reason Michigan State went 12-1 on the season, and their only loss (to Notre Dame) was more due to quarterback Connor Cook’s inability to throw the ball than any defensive failings – the Irish gained a mere 224 yards of offense. That was the story of the season for opponents, who found that both running and passing was heavy sledding. The run defense gave up just 82 yards per game at an average of 2.7 yards per carry, and just 7 TDs all season. Linebackers Denicos Allen (91 tackles, 15.5 for loss) and Max Bullough (76 tackles, 9.5 for loss) get most of the plaudits for making the tackles, but the defensive line, led by tackle Shilique Calhoun gave little room for ball carriers to maneuver. Calhoun was a monster in the middle, with 14 of his 36 tackles coming in the backfield. He also scored 3 TDs on returns (2 fumbles, 1 pick), and was the Spartans leading scorer at one stage of the season. Watching this group go up against the Stanford offensive line will be one of the highlights of bowl season.

So, with running the ball on the Spartans a fool’s errand, it would make sense for opponents to take to the air. Or maybe not. If anything, MSU’s pass defense was even better, holding opponents to just 167 yards per game and completing just 47.2% of their passes. They allowed 12 TD passes, but pilfered 16 interceptions, returning 2 of them for scores. In the last 2 games of the season, Minnesota and Ohio State completed just 17 of 48 passes against the Spartan secondary. All-conference corner Darqeze Dennard is beyond a shadow of a doubt the star of the unit, essentially cutting the field in half. Whenever opponents chose to test him he responded, intercepting 4 passes and breaking up 10 others. Safety Kurtis Drummond locked down the middle of the field, also picking off 4 passes (1 TD), breaking up 6, and helping out the big guys up front by chipping in with 86 tackles. Of course, it certainly helps a secondary, when you have a pass rush of Michigan State’s quality. Calhoun led the way with 7.5 sacks (18 hurries!!), but Allen and defensive end Marcus Rush combined for 10.5 sacks (and 14 sacks). Arizona State showed that the Stanford line had some holes in pass protection, but you better believe the Cardinal will be max-protecting Hogan, who can’t afford to throw any ill-advised passes in a game that could boil down to field position.

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Michigan State Offense:

The two offenses aren’t too far apart in terms of basic philosophy, but the Spartans are more likely to spread out defenses with a decent bunch of receivers to throw to. Of course, getting them the ball might be the problem. Cook has been hot and cold all season, throwing like Kirk Cousins on some occasions, and Kirk Cameron on others. Still, when Cook’s on, he is really on. He had a fine performance in the Big Ten title game, picking apart Ohio State to the tune of 304 yards and 3 TDs (1 Int) on a 24 of 40 performance. Sparty faithful will be hoping for a repeat performance in the Rose Bowl, especially if the running attack hits a wall. For the season, Cook completed 58.4% of his passes for 2423 yards, with 20 TDs and just 5 interceptions. Cook likes to spread the ball around, but there are 3 receivers who are the primary targets. Tony Lippett became a favored target over the second half of the season, and currently leads with 39 receptions, gaining 519 yards and a TD. Macgarrett Kings has had some strong performances, finishing second with 38 catches, 457 yards and 3 scores. The big play threat could be Bennie Fowler, who caught 34 passes, but led the team with 525 yards and 6 TDs. Freshman tight end Josiah Price (16-201-4) showed some nice flashes. The offensive line played their part, allowing just 15 sacks, but they’ll need to be at the top of their game on Wednesday.

Like Stanford, Michigan State will endeavor to establish the run. Like Stanford, they have a primary ball-carrier who can take over a game. That wasn’t the case all season, as there were concerns about the running game coming out of camp. As a result, Jeremy Langford, who has also played cornerback and receiver in his time in East Lansing, split carries in the early going. Once the Spartans realized what they had, that changed in a hurry. Over the last 8 games, Langford never had less than 21 carries or 104 yards, carrying the offense along the way. Langford isn’t the biggest guy on the pitch, but he may be one of the fastest, with 4.37 speed. Langford currently has 1338 yards and 17 TDs on 269 carries. Even so, he finishes his runs and displayed a nose for the endzone. Small-but-shifty backup Nick Hill ran for 344 yards and a score, but saw his carries decrease late in the season as Langford shouldered the load. The offensive line deserves more than its fair share of the credit, with all-conference tackle Blake Treadwell leading the fray.

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Stanford Defense:

The Cardinal defense may not possess the gaudy statistics of the Michigan State unit, but don’t believe for a second that they shouldn’t be discussed in the same hallowed tones. Stanford gave up 92 yards per game on the ground (3.0 average) and 248 yards (62.2% complete) through the air. While these numbers are far less impressive than the Spartans, bear in mind Stanford played in a conference with far more prolific offenses. Despite allowing a fairly substantial amount of yardage, particularly through the air, the Cardinal allowed just 18.6 points per game. The men in the front seven were the spearheads of the defense, and in particular, the linebackers. Trent Murphy was the playmaker, making 21.5 tackles for loss, had a pick-six, broke up 6 passes and forced 2 fumbles, among other plays. Having Shayne Skov and (100 tackles, 10 for loss) and AJ Tarpley (87 tackles, 5 for loss) around certainly freed up Murphy to wreak havoc. No linebacker corps can have this kind of success without a strong defensive line in front of them to keep blockers tied up, and Stanford were no different. Defensive Josh Mauro led the surge up front, making 49 tackles, with 11.5 in the backfield.

While the defense allowed a significant amount of yardage through the air, there were few cheap yards given up, as opponents earned every inch of real estate. Opposing passers averaged barely 10 yards per completion, as a pass rush that netted 40 sacks and an attributed 42 hurries, forced quarterbacks to get rid of the ball in a hurry. Murphy, unsurprisingly, was the top pass rusher with 14 sacks and 10 hurries, but the Cardinal ran a variety of blitzes to keep opponents unsettled. The need for passers to get rid of the ball in a hurry was particularly evident on 3rd down, where opponents completed less 48% of passes and earned first downs on a mere 32.6% of attempts. Safeties Ed Reynolds (76 tackles, 4 PBUs, 1 Int) and Jordan Richards (63 tackles, 4 for loss, 3 Ints) were all-conference picks and top performers in the unit. With an erratic quarterback like Cook up next, the Cardinal will likely amp up their pass rush to force him to hurry passes, particularly if the front seven can put the Spartans in long yardage situations. If Cook settles down early, the Cardinal secondary could find itself in a bind. A key battle to keep an eye on.

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Stanford Special Teams:

The Cardinal are in great shape at kicker with Jordan Williamson, who hit 16 of 20 field goals, with 2 of his misses from over 50 yards. When you run an offense like Stanford’s, scoring points can be at a premium, and a reliable kicker can make a huge difference. This point was made glaring in the loss to USC, when backup Conrad Ukropina missed a 30-yard effort that was the difference in the scoreline at the end of the game. Williamson is also good on kickoffs, putting nearly half his kicks through the endzone. Punter Ben Rhyne is decent, with a gross of 42.1 and a net of 37.8. Montgomery is a threat to take any kick to the house, taking back 2 for scores, but they need more pep on punt returns. Barry Sanders flashed some ability, but only had 6 attempts. Both coverage units were good, while the squad blocked 3 kicks.

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Michigan State Special Teams:

The Spartans are in similar good shape at kicker, at least they have been since Michael Geiger took over. The freshman hit 14 of 15 field goals on the season, with a long of 49, and made 33 of 35 PATs. The man he replaced, Kevin Muma, continued as the kickoff specialist and did a good job, with 34 of 75 going for touchbacks. Punter Mike Sadler is one of the best in the Big Ten, and complements the defense nicely with his kicks. Sadler had a gross of 42.3, dropping an outstanding 30 inside the 20, with 8 touchbacks. Only 16 of his punts were returned, for a total 116 yards. Kings was a decent punt returner, although nothing flashy. The Spartans were average returning kicks, but then, when you only return 18 kicks all season, it doesn’t matter too much.



This is a tough game to call, and I really like how both teams go about their business. The Spartans let their defense hold the fort, then wear down opponents late with their pounding running attack. Stanford are similar, basically lining up with an 8-man offensive line and running over opponents. The Cardinals excel at protecting a lead too – a 3-point lead against Stanford can often feel like 30. I think the Cardinals have played the tougher schedule, and won’t be fazed by the Spartan defense. It will be close though, probably 20-17.


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