PASADENA, Calif. – Before the game it was about the middle linebacker. After the game it was about the middle linebacker.
When senior Max Bullough’s career was pronounced dead via an email in the wee hours of Dec. 26, it jolted the MSU community eagerly readying itself for the biggest game in more than two decades. His departure stole the headlines from a team looking to prove it belonged among the nation’s best.
It was former walk-on Kyler Elsworth, a career backup with a knack for making big plays, who filled Bullough’s void as the starting middle linebacker in the final game of his career.
Elsworth, the unlikeliest of heroes as a fill-in for an accomplished defense, sealed a 24-20 win for the fourth-ranked Spartans against No. 5 Stanford in the 100th Rose Bowl with his late-game aerial tackle on Cardinal fullback Ryan Hewitt on fourth-and-1.
“I said I’ve got one chance here, I’ve got to go over the top because they’re taking out legs on the D-line so I ended up going up top and … I made a big play,” said Elsworth, who was named defensive MVP, as confetti precipitated through the cool California air.
“I couldn’t be happier.”
Elsworth’s Superman-esque stuff gave the ball back to the Spartans with 1:43 left on the clock while Stanford was out of timeouts. Three quarterback kneels – with senior Andrew Maxwell taking the final snap – kicked off a celebration 26 years in the making.
MSU ended its longest Rose Bowl drought since its maiden voyage to Pasadena, Calif., in 1954 with a win and improved its record to 4-1 in the legendary game.
The Spartans lost the first quarter, but won the final three in front of an amped-up crowd of more than 95,000, most of which was draped in green.
After ceding 146 yards in the first 15 minutes, MSU’s vaunted defense clamped down on the Cardinal attack and allowed just 159 during the next three quarters.
“You win with toughness,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “There’s no question about that. You win with toughness, physically and mentally, and I thought we did that tonight.”
Stanford scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the game, knocking the vaunted Spartan defense on its heels.
A busted coverage from sophomore cornerback Trae Waynes on the second play from scrimmage allowed for a 43-yard bomb from Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan to receiver Michael Rector. That play paved the way for a rumbling 16-yard touchdown from standout running back Tyler Gaffney.
After a Stanford field goal made it 10-0, sophomore quarterback Connor Cook led a 13-play, 75-yard drive for his team’s first touchdown: a 2-yard sprint by junior running back Jeremy Langford.
Cook made some poor decisions, resulting in one interception returned for a touchdown and two more passes that Stanford easily should have grabbed, but he finished with a career-high 332 passing yards and two touchdowns. He claimed offensive MVP honors after being named MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game.
Ironically, Cook’s pick-six was the turning point for MSU.
The Spartan offense trotted onto the field with slightly more than two minutes separating them from halftime and remained aggressive rather than melting the clock. Cook delivered a big throw to junior Tony Lippett for 24 yards and an arcing lob to senior Bennie Fowler to Stanford’s 3-yard line. The chunk plays setup a 2-yard touchdown reception by sophomore fullback Trevon Pendleton to cut the deficit to three by halftime.
MSU tied the game at 17 on the first possession of the third quarter off the leg of freshman kicker Michael Geiger from 31 yards out.
Lippett took a post route 25 yards to the house, dragging a defender with him to the end zone, to give the Spartans their first lead, 24-17, early in the fourth quarter. MSU took advantage of a short field after a 19-yard punt return by sophomore receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. started its drive on Stanford’s 27-yard line.
The Cardinal faced a third-and-16 from the MSU 28 after senior defensive end Denzel Drone dropped Hogan for an 8-yard sack on the previous play and had to settle for a 39-yard field goal after failing to convert the first down.
Stanford was on its own 34 when Elsworth’s decisive leaping stop put the game away in a play that will live on in Spartan lore for years to come. He wasn’t truly alone, though, as sophomore linebacker Darien Harris, who split time at linebacker with Elsworth, and sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun got a piece of Hewitt as well.
“You have to give it to Michigan State for stuffing that because everybody in the building knew exactly what was coming, a run was coming up the middle,” Gaffney said, “and it was a test of wills, and they got the better of us.”
Elsworth, a former standout wrestler who at one point was unsure if he would pursue a football career, made the most of his only career start.
“It was under circumstances that were unfortunate, but the coaches trusted that in me to step in and (do) the job just like Max has done for years now,” he said.
“It means a lot to me coming from a walk-on, working my way up the chain, (I’ve) been in every situation to have the coaches have faith in me, it means the world.”
MSU concludes the season with 13 wins and now has a three-game bowl winning streak – both feats are school records. The Spartans are assured a top-five spot in the final rankings.
More importantly, the players were adamant the Rose Bowl victory was a perception-altering game on a nationally televised stage.
“We should be (considered) elite. We’re top five. Anytime you talk about college football, Michigan State should be named,” cornerback Darqueze Dennard said after ending his decorated Spartan career.
Editor’s Note: This article has been changed to accurately reflect the name of this year’s Rose Bowl. It is the 100th Rose Bowl, not the 100th anniversary of the Rose Bowl.
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