Rose Bowl defenses: A closer look

The Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO features two of the nation's best defenses with Stanford and Michigan State, so ESPN.com's Stats & Information, as is their wont, decided to take a closer look.

First off, the basic numbers. Michigan State leads the nation in yards per game (247.8), yards per play (3.9) and third-down defense (28 percent conversion rate). The Spartans' defense has allowed the fewest rushing yards per game (80.5), yards per rush (2.7) and 10-yard runs (30) in the FBS. The Spartans have held 10 opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards, the most such games in the FBS. They did not allow a team to run for 100 yards until Week 12 against Nebraska.

Stanford has held its past seven opponents to 20 points or fewer and ranks atop the FBS in most major defensive categories despite playing the fourth-hardest schedule in the country (according to ESPN’s strength of schedule rankings).

The difference in schedule strength is an issue when comparing the defenses, Stats & Info notes:

A pure, statistical comparison of Michigan State’s and Stanford’s defenses may not be fair because Stanford has faced eight teams ranked in the top 40 in the FBS in total offense, compared with just two for Michigan State. Instead, let’s take a look at what each defense does best and how that translates to the Rose Bowl.

Here are some notable numbers, first for Michigan State.

  • Against the Spartans, it is hard to find space to run. On designed runs, Michigan State leads the FBS in yards before contact per game (40.3) and yards before contact per rush (1.7). The AQ averages are 89 yards before contact per game and 2.7 yards before contact per rush.

  • Nicknamed the “no fly zone”, Michigan State’s starting secondary, led by cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis, has 29 pass breakups and 12 interceptions. With this group, Michigan State rarely gives up big plays.

  • The Spartans allow opponents to complete 23.3 percent of their passes thrown 15 yards or longer, best among AQ defenses. They did not allow any opponent to complete more than 50 percent of such passes and limited Braxton Miller to 2-of-9 in the Big Ten Championship.

  • The Spartans' ability to play man-to-man coverage has afforded defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi the luxury of being aggressive without jeopardizing his pass defense. Michigan State sends five or more pass rushers on 34 percent of its opponents’ dropbacks, the highest percentage in the Big Ten. On such plays, opponents are completing 46.9 percent of their passes and are averaging 5 yards per attempt.

And for Stanford:

  • The strength of Stanford’s defense is its front seven. Led by linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, the Cardinal tied for sixth in the FBS with 98 tackles for loss and tied for first with 40 sacks.

  • Stanford does not have to send extra pass rushers to get after the quarterback. When sending four or fewer pass rushers, the Cardinal have 31 sacks and an AQ-high 110 total pressures.

  • Murphy, who is often the edge rusher, has an FBS-high 14 sacks. All of his sacks came as a part of a three- or four man rush. Because Stanford can create pressure without sending extra pass rushers, it leaves more men to drop into coverage.

  • Stanford’s front also has excelled in the running game. The Cardinal rank third in the FBS in rushing yards per game (91.2) and fourth in yards per rush (3.0). They have held all but one of their opponents below their season average for rush yards per game.

  • The key for Stanford has been its ability to penetrate the backfield and not allow opposing rushers to get outside. The Cardinal have made initial contact with opposing rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage on 48 percent of their carries, the second-highest percentage among AQ conference teams behind Virginia Tech (51 percent). Further, the Cardinal lead the Pac-12 in yards per rush (4.5) and touchdowns (four) allowed outside of the tackles.

So which defense is better? According to Stats & Info, it's pretty much a tie.

Adjusting for the strength of the offenses that each team has faced, Michigan State and Stanford have nearly identical rankings in ESPN’s defensive efficiency ratings -- a measure of expected points added per game on defense that adjusts for the strength of competition.

Even in the Rose Bowl it might be difficult to tell because the Cardinal offense is better than the Spartans. Stanford averages 33.2 points per game compared to 29.8 ppg. And keep the strength of schedule in mind when considering those numbers.