Jan 1, 2014; Pasadena, CA, USA; Michigan State Spartans linebacker Denicos Allen (28) celebrates after Michigan State Spartans beat Stanford Cardinal 24-20 at the Rose Bowl. Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Tyler Gaffney had eaten up yards all season as No. 5 Stanford’s workhorse running back. In final minutes of the Rose Bowl, the Cardinal had no reason to believe that he wouldn’t do the same with the game on the line.
But he got only one yard when he needed two. Down 24-20 with just 1:46 left on the clock and needing only a yard to for a first down, Stanford head coach David Shaw made a decisive play call that may haunt him into next season.
Fullback Ryan Hewitt took the handoff and was instantly stuffed at the line by two Michigan State defenders. The play effectively gave the fourth-ranked Spartans the win in the 100th Rose Bowl Wednesday night in Pasadena.
"It’s sort of like living the dream," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. "I woke up this morning and I knew it might be very, very special if we played hard. Great things were going to happen, we had possibilities and that’s what we did. We just kept playing. No magic to it, we just kept playing, found a way to make plays."
It was the Spartans’ first Rose Bowl win since 1988 and their third straight bowl game win.
It was a fitting end to a game that the Spartans’ defense dictated after halftime.
Stanford almost completely eliminated its opponent’s running game in the first half, allowing only 31 rushing yards. But the tides turned after the intermission and the Michigan State D played about as staunch as any defense could, giving up only 60 rushing yards and 137 total offensive yards.
It’s a nine‑man front, there’s a whole bunch of guys in there," Shaw said. "There’s a lot of slants and twists and pinches and sometimes Gaffney snuck out a couple, made a couple of great runs and a couple of them he didn’t have an opportunity."
Quarterback Kevin Hogan tried to establish the deep threat, but the Cardinal were eager to hand the ball off to Gaffney in the second half. By then, Michigan State had the pattern read: Gaffney straight up the middle, three-straight times.
"To beat a team like that, you’ve got to hit more than a couple deep balls," Shaw said. "It’s one‑on‑one outside, there’s a lot of contact on some of those."
"We just tried to minimize their explosive plays and that’s what we did," said linebacker Ed Davis. "We can put players anywhere on the field, we have versatility, we have playmakers."
The game features all the drama you expect in a BCS bowl. A record crowd of 95,173 saw Stanford jump out to a 10-0 lead before Michigan State scored 17 points to tie the game at 17-all in third quarter.
"I don’t want to say we were tourists in the first half," Dantonio said. "But we didn’t have our flash, (our) emotions that we usually have…But like we always have, we collected ourselves.
Quarterback Connor Cook overcame a shaky and inconsistent first half that saw him struggle under pressure and give up an interception that was returned for a touchdown by Kevin Anderson late in the second quarter.
But like Dantonio said, it’s a team that overcomes. The Spartans have been in the shadow of other Big 10 programs all season. They came into the game without Max Bullough, their All-American linebacker and named former walk-on Kyler Elsworth his replacement. In his first career start, Elsworth made the final stop on Hewitt and was named Defensive Player of the Game.
Go ahead and say the Spartans aren’t elite. It’s just one more thing for them to prove wrong.
"People shouldn’t be just brushing us off like they have been," said wide receiver Tony Lippett, who caught the fourth-quarter touchdown that ultimately sealed the win. "But I like being the underdog. I like being overlooked and it just gives us a little bit more motivation."