Down early, Spartans punch back to win Rose Bowl

Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook holds the trophy after Michigan State Spartans beat Stanford Cardinal 24-20 at the Rose Bowl.

Robert Hanashiro/Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has been known to occasionally smile.

He’s even rumored to laugh and tell jokes.

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Those human expressions are usually never displayed on a football field by the steely-eyed Dantonio, and definitely not during the stress-laden moments of Wednesday’s Rose Bowl against Stanford.

But the moment his stern demeanor cracked, when he put down his headset and smiled from ear to ear with 1:37 to go in the game, it was clear what his Spartans had accomplished: winning the Rose Bowl, affirming Dantonio’s philosophies and cementing MSU’s reputation as a tough team.

The hard work was done for this season, and Dantonio reveled in his team’s accomplishments. The Spartans defeated the favored Cardinal, 24-20, thanks to showing a resolve to win that matched Dantonio’s no-nonsense demeanor.

“To sum it up, when you come back 50 years from now with your grandchildren, you will see Michigan State up there on the winning plaque outside the stadium,” a clearly-thrilled Dantonio said during the post-game show. “Spartan nation is here and alive.”

There was never any doubt that Spartan nation was indeed in force in Pasadena, as the large chunk of the crowd of 95,173, clad in green-and-white, roared its serious support from the first moment MSU took the field for warm-ups.

But even Dantonio will admit his team tested the faith of Spartans fans everywhere, as its first steps in the Rose Bowl were tentative, leaving everybody to wonder: Was MSU nervous — or simply overmatched by No. 5 Stanford on this big stage?

Once No. 4 Michigan State figured out how to absorb the pressure, surviving a 10-0 smacking in the first quarter by Stanford, the Spartans (13-1) realized they belonged in the Rose Bowl.

The defense began to assert itself, finding ways to slice through Stanford’s NFL-sized offensive line, and MSU began to punch its way back.

A different edition of this team, affectionately known as the self-destructing "Same Old Spartans," would have crumpled after sophomore quarterback Connor Cook forced a pass that turned into a pick-6 in the second quarter. Stanford junior outside linebacker Kevin Anderson, who nearly intercepted a pass in the first quarter, rambled untouched for a 40-yard touchdown return.

The Cardinal went up 17-7, and Michigan State seemed to be teetering on giving into self-doubt.

The Spartans, as embodied by Rose Bowl offensive MVP Cook, decided to defy pressure, instead of giving into it. He led MSU down the field in the next series after his mistake, culminating with a 2-yard touchdown pass to sophomore fullback Trevin Pendleton.

The Spartans were down only by 3 heading into the half, essentially feeling like a tie given how far they had come in regaining their soul. Stanford didn’t look as cocky and showed cracks in its opening momentum.

Cook would show improved composure during Stanford’s hard-blitzing schemes and scrambled his way to completions. He found receiver Tony Lippett for a 25-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, putting MSU up to stay.

Cook was 22-of-36 for a career-high 332 yards and grew as the game progressed.

“I’ve been resilient all year, you’ve got to put things behind you,” Cook said, when asked how he overcame his costly interception. “…I’m at a loss for words right now. This is surreal. Such a blessing.”

It was fitting, as Michigan State’s smash-mouth and gutsy defense had been its calling card all season long, that the Rose Bowl would be decided by key stop.

The Cardinal had the ball with 1:46 left in the game, and a big decision at fourth-and-1 at its 34 loomed. Stanford went for it, after a time out, and lined up a jumbo package to stuff senior fullback Ryan Hewitt through the middle.

Senior linebacker Kyler Elsworth, who was thrust into starting for key senior Max Bullough after his suspension, launched himself over the top of the pile and stopped Hewitt cold.

Stanford’s series, and their last scoring chance, was over.

This Rose Bowl win was sealed, and it was time for Dantonio to let down his guard. He smiled, hugged players and even artfully sidestepped the customary end-of-game Gatorade shower.

Time will tell if this is the opening salvo of Michigan State developing the depth of its program to take the next bold step — shooting for winning the national title.

For now, though, being 2014 Rose Bowl Champions, finishing the season on a 10-game win streak, winning the Big Ten title game, and yes, giving the Spartan fan-base its first chance to rejoice in Pasadena in 26 years are clearly enough.

“We’re 13-1, and we’ve won the Rose Bowl, can’t get better than that,” Dantonio said.

And yes, he was smiling. For now.