Five storylines to watch in the Rose Bowl
In the final year of the BCS format in Division I football, MSU will get its long-awaited shot in arguably the premier post-season destination outside of the national championship.
When the No. 4 Spartans take on No. 5 Stanford, champion of the Pac-12, in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, it will be the realization of a longstanding goal for head coach Mark Dantonio’s program. MSU narrowly missed BCS bowl bids in 2010 and 2011, but rebounded from a disappointing 7-6 campaign a year ago behind a resurgent offense led by first-year starting quarterback Connor Cook and a vicious defense that ranks No. 1 in the country.
As the Spartans’ dream becomes reality in Pasadena, Calif., in what is expected to be a majority MSU crowd, here are five storylines to watch:
1. Missing Max?
Since the Spartans touched down in California on Christmas night, the biggest story surrounding their team has been the shocking announcement of senior linebacker Max Bullough’s suspension.
I wrote in a column Saturday how Bullough’s absence on the field won’t be as detrimental as the distraction the situation created and the potential void in leadership presented.
I’ve been wrong before and I could be wrong again. Stanford wants to out-tough opponents offensively, much like MSU, with a power running attack behind a bulky offensive line.
How much Bullough’s ability to adapt the defense and process things on the field is missed should be evident early.
The Spartans have other leaders, and it’s incredibly hard to believe they won’t be fired up to play in this game, so I’m not sure they’ll need him too much in that regard.
But if Stanford finds a way to exploit Bullough’s absence in the running game, it’s possible MSU’s defense could be taken advantage of in a way not previously seen in 2013.
Senior Kyler Elsworth is expected to start in Bullough’s place, while sophomore Darien Harris also may see time in the middle.
2. We’re here, now what?
From the moment Dantonio was hired in 2007, the openly stated goal for his program was to return to the Rose Bowl – a venue the Spartans haven’t played in since 1988.
The previously mentioned near-misses in 2010 and 2011 left bitter tastes in the mouths of MSU players and coaches alike. Now that the Spartans finally made their return, they now have to worry about actually winning the Rose Bowl.
Since hitting the West Coast, they’ve been showered in bowl gifts and new gear, participated in a prime rib eating contest and enjoyed a comedy show as a team in addition to enjoying the sunny California weather.
For so long, MSU strived to get to this game. Now that it’s there, will the Spartans be content with participating or be prepared to win?
3. Trench warfare
It’s often said that whichever team dominates the line of scrimmage wins the game, and that adage couldn’t be more fitting for this matchup.
As previously mentioned, the Cardinal will line up with multiple tight ends and offensive linemen and look to knock the Spartans off the ball with a bruising rushing attack.
Stanford is an old-school, power offense with few frills and gimmicks averaging more than 210 yards per game on the ground.
MSU also relies on the running game to get its wheels turning and open things up for Cook in the passing game, but Stanford, No. 3 nationally in rush defense, will be the toughest challenge yet.
If either team gains a decisive advantage up front, it’s odds of winning should increase tremendously.
4. Langford’s streak
Outside of Cook, junior running back Jeremy Langford’s emergence at running back has been the surprise story on offense for the 2013 Spartans. Langford cemented himself as the starter early and grew into a potent weapon as the season wore on.
Currently, he’s riding a streak of eight 100-yard rushing games, many of which included breakaway touchdowns to ice games late in the fourth quarter.
Ohio State tried to stack the box to stymie Langford in the Big Ten Championship Game, and Stanford is likely to do the same.
If Langford can keep the 100-yard streak alive, and possibly even deliver another late-game dagger, it’ll be one of the keys for the Spartans to leave Pasadena with smiles on their faces.
5. Going out on top
After beating the Buckeyes for the Big Ten championship, MSU had been ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense for 13 consecutive weeks.
The Spartans give up an average of 248.2 yards per game, giving them a slight nod ahead of the No. 2 defense, Louisville, at 251.5 yards per game.
Can MSU hold on to its top ranking? Somebody much smarter than me would have to figure out exactly how many yards MSU can surrender for that to be true.
If the Spartans get torched, that probably means they lose the game and the No. 1 spot. One of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s favorite lines is “stats are for losers,” but there’s no denying that finishing the year as the top-ranked defense would be a feather in MSU’s cap, especially with a Rose Bowl victory.
This has been a benchmark year for the Spartan defense, which began its ascent as an elite unit in 2010. The finale, pitted against one of the best offenses it’s seen thus far, should be exciting to watch.