Rose Bowl preview: Defense to set the tone for Stanford, Michigan State

Stanford (11-2) solved its "Oregon problem" last season, and that earned the Card their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 2000. The Cardinal beat Wisconsin 20-14 in that contest. One year later, they're heading back to the Granddaddy of Them All, this time to face Big Ten champion Michigan State (12-1). The Spartans return to Pasadena for the first time since 1988, so this 100th installment of the Rose Bowl promises to be a matchup full of passion as both teams bring rugged defenses to Southern California.

The Rundown
Who: Stanford (11-2, 7-2 Pac-12) vs. Michigan State (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten)
What: The Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio
What Vizio is: One of the top producers of consumer electronics
When: Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2:10 p.m. PT
Where: Pasadena, Calif.
Where to Watch: ESPN with Brent Musburger (play-by-play), Kirk Herbstreit (analyst), and Heather Cox (sideline)
Where to Listen: ESPN Radio, KNBR 1050 (Stanford flagship in the Bay Area), KZSU 90.1 FM (Stanford campus radio)

The Series
All-Time Record: Michigan State leads 3-2
Last Meeting: Dec. 31, 1996 (Stanford won 38-0 in the Sun Bowl)

Stat matchup
Rushing offense - Stanford: 5.0 yards per carry; Michigan State 4.43 yards per carry
Passing offense - Stanford: 9.0 yards per attempt; Michigan State 6.7 yards per attempt
Scoring offense - Stanford: 33.2 points per game; Michigan State 29.8 points per game
Rushing defense - Stanford 2.9 yards per carry; Michigan State 2.7 yards per carry
Scoring defense - Stanford 18.6 points per game; Michigan State 12.7 points per game

How they got there
The Cardinal rode another impressive regular season to the Pac-12 Championship. Massive wins over Washington, UCLA and Oregon (all at home) put David Shaw's team in excellent position even after a surprising loss at Utah in mid-October. But a gut-wrenching 20-17 setback at USC in mid-November seemed to derail Stanford as Oregon retook control of its destiny in the Pac-12 North.

The following week, though, Arizona shocked Oregon 42-16, and the Cardinal hopped back in the driver's seat. They demolished Cal to return to the Pac-12 Championship game, where they finally solved their road offensive issues (particularly in the red zone) to blow away Arizona State 38-14 and punch the ticket to Pasadena. 

Defense and special teams have been staples for this team all season long. Now, offensive consistency spearheaded by a powerful rushing attack and timely downfield passing seems to be following suit.

Michigan State
The Spartans changed quarterbacks from Andrew Maxwell to Connor Cook before their second game of the season, and although that's improved offensive productivity in East Lansing, this is a team that has hung its hat on a defense that is leading the nation in several metrics (opposing yards per play, opposing yards per rush). 

Michigan State's only loss of the year came in week four, when it dropped a close 17-13 battle at Notre Dame. Since then, Mark Dantonio's squad has ripped off nine consecutive victories. They didn't come particularly close to defeat during Big Ten play, with their biggest challenge coming against No. 2 Ohio State in the conference championship game. That contest required the Spartans to flex their offensive muscles, and Cook obliged by leading the team to a 34-24 victory over the Buckeyes to secure the berth in Pasadena.

Coaching matchup 
After taking over for Jim Harbaugh in 2011, Stanford coach David Shaw has led the Cardinal to four consecutive BCS bowls. His program is currently the only one in the nation on such a streak. Stanford also has more wins over FBS competition this decade than any other team in the nation, including Alabama, Oregon and Boise State.

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio has led the Spartans to a bowl game in each of seven seasons in East Lansing. Two of those years (2010 and 2011) have produced 11-win seasons, but neither of those campaigns ended in Pasadena.

Key players
Running Back Tyler Gaffney – With over 1,500 yards on the ground, he's already amassed Stanford's second-biggest individual rushing season ever (behind only Toby Gerhart in 2009). He's the centerpiece of the Cardinal ground-and-pound that operates behind perhaps the best offensive line in the nation.

Quarterback Kevin Hogan – When No. 8 plays well, Stanford operates a passing attack that can effectively complement the team's rugged rushing game. Hogan also moves well on his own, creating an added dimension of worry for opposing defenses.

Linebacker Trent Murphy – The national leader in sacks and tackles for loss, Murphy is a game-changing force lining up anywhere in the front seven to disrupt opposing offenses.

Michigan State
Quarterback Connor Cook – Like Hogan is to Stanford, Cook is vital to Michigan State's offensive success. His numbers are not spectacular, but the Spartans saw downfield passing success against Ohio State, and they likely will need more of the same against Stanford.

Cornerback Darqueze Dennard – Already the winner of the Jim Thorpe Award (given to the nation's top defensive back), Dennard likely will be asked to shadow big play threat Ty Montgomery as the Spartans commit the front seven to stopping Stanford's running game.

Linebacker Denicos Allen – The team leader with 91 tackles and 15 tackles for loss, Allen is a key at the linebacker position in what figures to be a war against Stanford's rushing attack. This game carries no secrets: It will be a physical bloodbath up front.

Keys to the game
The Cardinal's defense has been a constant this season, and there's no reason to believe it will flounder against a Michigan State offense that has not been great in 2013. Instead, the concern for Shaw is how his offense will stack up against the Spartan defensive juggernaut. Dantonio's team is likely to challenge Stanford's running game by stacking the box and relying on its defensive backs (nicknamed the "no-fly zone") to defend the Cardinal's talented receivers in single coverage. If Kevin Hogan can mix enough effective passing in with Stanford's running game against this defense, Stanford should be able to score enough points to win.

Michigan State
The Spartans, of course, want to accomplish the opposite: They've hung their hat on defense all season long, and they'll try to beat Stanford with aggressive defense at the point of attack. Much, then, will hinge on defensive line play (can Michigan State occupy blockers up front?) and on secondary performance, because Hogan has been developing confidence as of late. Offensively, Dantonio's squad must keep protecting Cook well (they've given up only 15 sacks all season) and hope that time for him to throw leads to openings downfield. Very few teams have success running the football against this Stanford defense.

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