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Monday, April 21, 2014

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A quarter-century in the making, Rose Bowl is here


Head coach Mark Dantonio talks to sophomore wide receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis during the Big Ten Championship. Julia Nagy/The State News

PASADENA, Calif. – Mark Dantonio proclaimed it and made good on his word.

After the head coach told his team last winter “you will be the ones,” he fulfilled his own prophecy by leading No. 4 MSU to the Rose Bowl – the program’s first since 1988.

The longstanding goal of Dantonio’s program has been met and now his team is tasked with taking on a hard-nosed, physical Stanford team, ranked No. 5, in the “Granddaddy of Them All.”

Finally, the Spartans (12-1 overall) can get down to business against the Cardinal (11-2) after days of media obligations, theme park visits, prime rib eating, film studying and a cloud of speculation as to how they will handle the suspension of senior linebacker and leader Max Bullough.

“You tend to overanalyze sometimes,” Dantonio told reporters on Dec. 30 regarding the long layoff.

“The game is going to be played on the field. I believe it’s going to come down to the execution of what we do: the blocking, the tackling, the catching the football. All the little things that really make the game of football what it is.”

In the fifth Rose Bowl in school history, MSU squares off with a foe eerily similar to itself.

Like the Spartans, the Cardinal – Rose Bowl champions a year ago – feature a suffocating defense (ranked No. 3 nationally, MSU is No. 1). Offensively, MSU and Stanford have conceptual differences, but both units pride themselves on being the more physical team and establishing a punishing running attack.

Stanford will employ unbalanced formations and power sets with extra offensive linemen on the field to spring star running back Tyler Gaffney, the country’s eighth-leading rusher with 1,618 yards.

For the Spartans, establishing control along on the offensive and defensive lines will be paramount. If junior running back Jeremy Langford can stretch his streak of 100-yard rushing games to nine games, it should pay dividends for MSU’s ability to open up the playbook.

Dantonio acknowledged the philosophical similarities between the programs, noting unpredictability and keeping the opponent off-balance is critical when facing a pseudo-clone.

“But at the same time I think that … is it easier? No,” he said. “Is it harder? No. We just do what we do. I think that’s the basis of it.”

MSU earned its trip to Pasadena, Calif., by growing and developing through each game this season. The team running on to the pristine Rose Bowl turf on New Year’s Day barely resembles the incomplete squad seen in September with a dominant defense and train wreck offense.

Stanford’s stout 3-4 defense, spearheaded by a pair of fierce senior linebackers, Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, will be the toughest challenge for sophomore quarterback Connor Cook and the MSU offense to date.

The Spartans’ defense will look to maintain its No. 1 ranking through the end of the season despite Bullough commanding the middle linebacker spot, a position he’s occupied for the past three years. Dantonio said senior Kyler Elsworth is slated to start in Bullough’s place, and sophomore Darien Harris also will see time there.

MSU is 3-1 in previous Rose Bowls, its only loss was in 1966 when the Spartans lost to UCLA 14-12. Since 2001, only one Big Ten team has won the Rose Bowl: Ohio State in 2010, 26-17, versus Oregon.

The dream Dantonio crafted for his team is about to be realized in the 100th anniversary of the sport’s most sanctified game. He’s ready to blow the whistle and get this thing going.

“It gets to that point where you’re done talking and you’re just ready to play, and I think we’re at that point as a football team,” Dantonio said. “… You have to do things better than they do, inevitably. You’re not going to trick them the whole game, neither team.

“You’re going to have to play. That’s the beauty of football.”

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