The Rose Bowl: 9 Takeaways From Michigan State’s Win

Michigan State beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl 24-20, ending a three-game losing streak for the Big Ten (or at least a three-game losing streak by Wisconsin) in Pasadena. Here’ the Notebook Nine, our takeaways from the game…

*Stanford’s quick 10-0 lead was reminiscent of last year’s early 14-zip lead on Wisconsin. But like the Badgers, Sparty turned it around and they had the kind of passing game that could get the comeback over the top. Does this mean Stanford coach David Shaw is exceptional at scripting the game’s early moments and maximizing his talent, or that he is lacking at in-game adjustments? Or both?

college football bowl history*ESPN commentators Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit noted that Shaw told them prior to the game that the Cardinal would lose if they didn’t make plays down the field in the passing game. The coach was right—the opportunities were there. But I counted three plays where quarterback Kevin Hogan put the ball on the money and a receiver failed to make a play. They weren’t awful drops, but they were plays a receiver at this level should make. The deficiency made a prophet of their head coach.

*Herbstreit sung the praises of Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, and the 332 pass yards back that up. But it also has to be pointed out that Cook threw one terrible interception that ended up a Stanford touchdown, and he threw two more passes that hit Cardinal defenders in the hands and were dropped. Cook’s performance was more boom-or-bust, rather than flawless, and Stanford’s drops on both sides of the ball were a huge key to this game.

*There was still plenty to like about Cook and a lot to like about the offensive gameplan cooked up by head coach Mark Dantonio. The Michigan State coach seemed to know he couldn’t play smash-mouth with Stanford, nor could he just do straight dropback. Cook was kept on the move and the sophomore’s athletic ability kept the Spartan offense functioning, even at difficult points in the game.

*Early in the game, Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney looked like he would have a big night and the Michigan State’s defense strong statistical rankings looked more like an indictment of the Big Ten. But the Spartan defense completely turned things around. Gaffney went nowhere later in the game, and his 24 carries/91 yards was comparable to Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford at 23/84.

*The turnaround by Michigan State’s defense was the key to their team completely controlling the game for the last three quarters. Stanford had a pick-6 at the end of the first half, and Langford fumbled inside the Cardinal 10-yard line in the third quarter. If you take a TD off the board for Stanford and add at least a field goal for Michigan State, this isn’t a nailbiter in the last five minutes.

*A play that has to be on the mind of Stanford fans is a pass interference call in the end zone, at a point when they led 10-0 and Cook was looking to convert a third-and-goal. The ball went over the receivers’ head, and Herbstreit thought it should have been ruled uncatchable. I felt the correct call was made. If you ask me whether I think the catch would have been made, the answer is no, I think it was overthrown. But if you’re going to ask me if it was absolutely unthinkable that the catch would have been made—the standard we have to use if we’re going to pick up a flag—that answer is also no. And the four extra points Michigan State got by scoring the touchdown were the margin of victory.

*The coaching decision Stanford fans will focus on was Shaw’s decision to kick a field goal when he trailed 24-17 with five minutes to and facing a fourth-and-short. I would have gone for it. If it was 4th-and-15, as seemed possible a play earlier, then I’d have taken the points. But in that situation you have to give the benefit of the doubt to getting in the end zone on that possession, particularly when even kicking a field goal doesn’t cut the margin to three or less.

*I want to conclude with an ode to both Dantonio and Shaw. I love both of these coaches, and I love the way these teams play football. They’re intelligent, they hit hard and they play tough. I enjoyed watching this Rose Bowl as much as I have any game without a direct rooting interest—so much, that I ended up cheering for both teams at different points in the game, just to maximize the drama at the end. Now each one has a Rose Bowl victory on his resume.