Michigan State beats Stanford 24-20 in Rose Bowl slugfest
Pasadena, Calif. • On a confetti-covered stage atop a hallowed field, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio managed to sum up a quarter-century of frustration, a stellar season and a tenacious bowl victory in one word.
"Completion," he said.
With a 24-20 victory over Stanford on Wednesday night, the Spartans reached the goal set by Dantonio seven years ago. They're champions of the Rose Bowl, rulers of the Big Ten and nobody's little brother anymore.
Connor Cook passed for a career-high 332 yards and hit Tony Lippett with a tiebreaking 25-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, and No. 4 Michigan State held off the fifth-ranked Cardinal in the 100th Rose Bowl.
Cook also threw a TD pass to Trevon Pendleton, and Jeremy Langford rushed for 84 yards and a score as the Spartans overcame their first double-digit deficit of the entire season before surging ahead late and preserving the lead with stalwart defense. Michigan State finished its breakthrough season with 10 straight wins, holding off the Pac-12 champion Cardinal (11-3) for the school's first Rose Bowl victory since 1988.
"It's a special time for all Spartans, and we came here in force," Dantonio said. "I'm very happy for our football team, the resilience we showed all season long."
The Spartans have long labored behind Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan where they're derisively called the Wolverines' little brothers among the Midwest's top programs, but Michigan State is in charge now.
Michigan State's FBS-best defense capped its dominant season with one more old-school performance befitting the centennial celebration of the Granddaddy of Them All. The Spartans (13-1) yielded just 159 yards in the final three quarters, and they closed it out by stopping Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt on fourth-and-1 near midfield with 1:46 to play.
Kyler Elsworth, the fifth-year senior filling in for suspended starting linebacker Max Bullough, hurdled the pile and flew into Michigan State lore with a spectacular head-on tackle.
"When I saw their offensive linemen's stance, I knew the way to make a play was to go over the top," said Elsworth, the game's defensive MVP. "I was hoping they would run a play like they did on their fourth down. It's a one-in-a-lifetime play. We proved we could play on the big stage on the national level."
Tyler Gaffney ran for 91 yards and an early TD for Stanford, and linebacker Kevin Anderson returned an interception 40 yards for a score late in the first half. But the Cardinal couldn't follow up last season's victory over Wisconsin with back-to-back Rose Bowl wins, managing just three points from their offense after the first quarter.
And Gaffney could only watch as Hewitt was stopped on Stanford's final play.
"You have to give it to Michigan State for stuffing that," said Gaffney, who managed just 24 yards after the first quarter. "Everybody in the building knew exactly what was coming. A run was coming up the middle, and it was a test of wills, and they got the better of us."
Cook led in his own inimitable fashion, making incredible plays and huge mistakes along the way. Along with his second-quarter interception on a lollipop of a throw to Anderson, who scored untouched, he also threw two passes that went through the hands of Cardinal defenders.
But when the Spartans needed big plays in the second half, Cook repeatedly delivered, finishing 22 for 36.
"When we got down, guys were always helping each other," Cook said. "We're such a balanced team."
A mere 112 years after the game considered the first Rose Bowl was played in a park elsewhere in Pasadena, Stanford and Michigan State engaged in an old-fashioned slugfest in the venerable stadium that will host the BCS title game Monday night.
Michigan State fans dominated the Rose Bowl grounds and stands, with about 70 percent wearing green in the crowd of 95,173 the game's largest turnout since 1998. Tens of thousands of those fans stayed in the stands long after the Spartans had left the field, dancing and singing to the Michigan State band's music.
Bullough was on his teammates' minds, and his number was written on a towel by linebacker Taiwan Jones. But Elsworth capably handled Bullough's work before making the play of his life on that final tackle.
While the sideline roared and the stands rocked, even the stone-faced Dantonio celebrated.
"I get a little excited at the Rose Bowl," Dantonio said.