Rose Bowl preview
Before this week, the question surrounding the Rose Bowl was which team would prove to have the better defense, No. 4 Michigan State or No. 5 Stanford?
But the Spartans now face a bigger question: Can they rally together as a team and overcome the loss of senior linebacker and captain Max Bullough?
Late Christmas night, the school announced that Bullough had been suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules and he would not play in the Rose Bowl.
Bullough, one of the unquestioned leaders of the team and of the defense, did not make the trip to Pasadena, Calif.
Coach Mark Dantonio will have to make sure that his No. 1 ranked defense does not miss a beat without Bullough.
As the middle linebacker, Bullough was the one making the majority of the calls at the line of scrimmage.
That task now falls to fifth-year senior linebacker Kyler Elsworth and sophomore Darien Harris, who split time at that spot in practice.
"I feel like I’ve prepared myself all year to step in and do a good job," Elsworth told reporters at a media event at Disneyland Thursday. "It’s a big shock. Just like everyone always says, Max is the heart of our defense. Not only is he a good player, but he’s a good communicator. He gets everyone on the same page and doing the same things. It’ll be a tough loss."
Dantonio did not offer much more on the Bullough situation Thursday.
"We’re gonna play. We’re gonna rise up and play," he told reporters at the Disneyland press conference. "Obviously, in the statement I made, it’s extremely disappointing, for all parties involved. There are no winners here."
If the Spartans are to emerge as winners in their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1988, they’ll have to overcome the loss of Bullough and any "happy to be here" feelings.
Stanford won’t have to worry about the latter, having won the Rose Bowl last year, beating Wisconsin, 20-14. It was Stanford’s first Rose Bowl victory in 40 years.
"Our guys have fond memories of it, but they’ve already started to say it: ‘Last year was last year, and we have to prepare this year completely different,’" Shaw told ESPN.com. "Michigan State has been on a phenomenal run, tough competition, and has come to play every week. We know it’s going to be a great game."
Unlike the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State, which was billed as the top defense versus the top offense, the matchup with Stanford is more like looking in the mirror.
The Spartans allow just 248.2 yards per game, best in the country. Their run defense is particularly stingy, giving up 80.8 yards rushing per game.
The Cardinal are ranked 14th in the country, allowing 339 yards per game, but are third in rushing defense, giving up 91.2 yards per game.
However, in their last seven games, the Cardinal have allowed just 64.4 yards per game and only one team has rushed for 100 yards in that span.
Offensively, the Spartans don’t rank as high, 82nd in total offense at 384.6 yards per game, 61st in scoring offense at 29.8 points per game, 51st in rushing offense at 182.2 yards per game and 89th in passing offense at 202.5 yards per game.
Some of that might be attributable to early-season struggles before Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford established themselves as the starting quarterback and running back, respectively.
Cook is 201-for-344 for 2,423 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Langford has a streak of eight straight 100-yard rushing games. In 13 games, Langford has 269 carries for 1,338 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett are the Spartans’ top receivers. Fowler has 34 catches for 525 yards and six touchdowns while Lippett has 39 catches for 519 yards and one touchdown.
The Stanford Cardinal are 67th in total offense at 413.1 yards per game, 39th in scoring offense at 33.2 points per game, 23rd in rushing offense at 210.9 yards per game and are close to the Spartans in passing offense at 202.2 yards per game, 93rd in the country.
Kevin Hogan does not pass a lot, but is efficient when he does, 170-for-277 for 2,487 yards, 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Tyler Gaffney leads the way for the Cardinal on the ground, rushing 306 times for 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns. He has averaged 144.5 yards in his past eight games.
Ty Montgomery leads the Cardinal with 58 catches for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who won the Jim Thorpe Award and many other awards for his work this season, will likely be assigned to Montgomery.
Dennard, along with the other seniors, will have to step up from a leadership perspective in Bullough’s absence.
One of the things that the Spartans have going for them is that they are an extremely close group, often speaking of each other and the coaches as family or brothers.
If they can rally together and still play a high level of defense without Bullough, they can still be successful.
"That just gives us that much more reason to play," Fou Fonoti told reporters at Disneyland. "That’s our brother, and we love him. We’ve got his back. We’re gonna play this game, and we’re gonna play with his mentality.
"We’re definitely gonna do it for him."