LOS ANGELES -- When a team loses a three-year starter, a two-time All-Conference performer and a two-time team captain to a shocking suspension in advance of the Rose Bowl, as Michigan State did with linebacker Max Bullough, it matters. It matters big-time.
This is something that Michigan State and Stanford players agree on.
"You can tell he was a leader on defense by the way the team reacts to him," Cardinal fullback Ryan Hewitt said. "So you know they're going to be missing their leader, their smartest player on defense."
The Spartans led the nation in rushing and total defense, and Bullough was a big reason why. His 76 tackles and 9.5 tackles for a loss ranked third on the defense. His potential replacements, senior Kyler Elsworth and sophomore Darien Harris -- a starter hasn't been named -- combined for 17 tackles.
While the physical loss is big, it's perhaps more challenging to lose Bullough's smarts and leadership. Mental mistakes, even more than physical shortcomings, are often critical in defensive-minded, low-scoring games, as most expect the Rose Bowl to be.
"I think they'll probably miss his leadership," Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said. "I feel like he was probably the quarterback of their huddle, and in addition they will miss some of those checks at the line of scrimmage."
And that could provide Stanford with the opportunity for an explosive play.
STANFORD STYLE: Bloomgren was asked about Stanford's style of play. In past years, Stanford players have talked about "class and cruelty." It appears they have a new colorful mantra.
"When I think about our offense," Bloomgren said. "I want it to be intellectual brutality."
In other words: It's about smart guys who run over their opponents.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan, who is not known for turning colorful phrases to the media, picked up this same theme without much prodding.
"I would say that no one can out-weigh our physicality, out-toughen us," he said. "That's our goal. We want teams to quit, we want them to tap out and say, 'If you do that one more time, I'm done.' That's our goal."
MOVING UP FROM THE IVY LEAGUE: One of the popular topics this week is Stanford's rise to national football power as the preeminent academic university playing AQ conference football. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason pointed out that the Cardinal's recruiting pool is about "one percent" of the AQ-conference capable high school football players.
But recruiting has gotten easier than it was during the early Jim Harbaugh years. Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Trent Murphy said he didn't know anything about Stanford when it first started recruiting him out of Mesa, Ariz.
"I couldn't tell you what division Stanford was in," he said. "I thought it was an Ivy League school and played Harvard in a smart school bowl every year. My perception was skewed until Jim Harbaugh showed up at my door with a big grin on his face and a hungry look in his eye and he said, 'Here is what we want to do and we want you to be a part of it.' And I was like, 'Okay!'"
GOAL LINE STAND? Stanford RB Tyler Gaffney has scored 18 of his 20 rushing touchdowns against eight or more defenders in the box, the most such touchdowns among AQ running backs. On average, 50 percent of rushing touchdowns are scored against defenses with eight or more defenders in the box.
Michigan State, meanwhile, has allowed just seven rushing touchdowns all year.
GETTING DEFENSIVE: Michigan State and Stanford both rank in the top 10 in ESPN’s defensive efficiency ratings. Michigan State leads the FBS in yards allowed per game (247.8), rush yards allowed per game (80.5) and third-down defense (28 percent). Entering bowl season, Stanford ranks atop the Pac-12 and among the top 15 nationally in each of those categories.