PASADENA, Calif. -- The advance billing for the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO played the Stanford-Michigan State matchup as a battle of shared football philosophies: two physical, line-of-scrimmage teams that run the ball and play to their stout defenses. In some ways, the media saw this as twin brothers going eyeball to eyeball for a potentially captivating barroom donnybrook.
The general feeling also was that Stanford was the more formidable brawler, mostly because it was more proven and battled tested, having emerged from the rugged Pac-12 as a BCS bowl participant four consecutive seasons.
Yet it was Michigan State that took control, made poised adjustments and imposed its will in a 24-20 victory. Stanford got, well, out-Stanford-ed. It's likely more than a few Pac-12 coaches, players and fans thought, "See … now you know what it feels like to get pushed around."
Stanford has now lost eight games over the past four years, but only a couple of times could you say its offensive line lost the battle at the point of attack.
"Push came to shove, we sort of started shoving back a little bit really," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
The Cardinal jumped out to early 10-0 and 17-7 leads, but the Spartans scored a touchdown just before the break, capping a 75-yard drive, and then dominated the second half. Stanford rushed for 162 yards, twice what the Spartans yielded this season, but 47 yards of that came on one play and the Cardinal had just 71 yards rushing on 27 carries over the final three quarters.
Stanford was 0-for-2 on fourth-and-short plays. Both times, it tried to run right at Michigan State and failed to get a decisive push, the most notable being fullback Ryan Hewitt getting stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the Cardinal 34-yard line on its final possession.
There's no more straightforward measure of contesting teams' physicality than an up-the-middle run on fourth-and-short, and the Spartans won that battle. This was a point, by the way, Stanford's locker room repeatedly and graciously acknowledged.
"Fourth-and-1 is what we preach on, what we do, what Stanford football is all about," said running back Tyler Gaffney, who was stopped earlier on a fourth-and-3 run. "You have to give it to Michigan State for stuffing that because 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."
Stanford couldn't run the ball after the first quarter, and it had little intermediate passing game. The tight-end-centric passing attack of the previous three years was sorely missed. It had completions of 43 and 51 yards, but Kevin Hogan passed for only 143 total yards. The Spartans load the box and play man coverage with their outstanding cornerback combination, led by Thorpe award winner Darqueze Dennard, and dare you to consistently complete downfield passing plays.
"It's a nine-man front," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "There's a whole bunch of guys in there. There's a lot of slants and twists and pinches and sometimes [running back Tyler Gaffney] snuck out a couple, made a couple of great runs, and a couple of them he didn't have an opportunity. They're that good up front. But to beat a team like that, you've got to hit more than a couple deep balls, because it's one-on-one outside."
The Cardinal repeatedly faced second- and third-and-long, ending up just 4-of-13 on third downs.
As for Stanford's defense, it mostly shut down the Michigan State running game, holding the Spartans to just 65 yards, but it yielded 332 yards passing and two touchdowns to quarterback Connor Cook, who was sacked four times but mostly eluded an aggressive pass rush.
There certainly was some "what might have been" with Cook and the Stanford defense. Though Kevin Anderson's pick-six gave the Cardinal a 17-7 lead in the second quarter, two easy interceptions were dropped, including one by Anderson. Another interception was killed by a pass-interference call.
"Michigan State played their game and we tried to play ours," Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said. "I give them all the credit. We didn't get off the field enough when we needed to. We had opportunities. Two missed picks. When you don't make those plays, those lead to scores. But we don't deal in 'What ifs.' We deal in reality."
The reality of the 100th Rose Bowl is that, in a battle of twin brothers in terms of physical football, Michigan State proved the more rugged brawler this night.
Stanford played its game. It went mano-a-mano with the Spartans, but it ended up getting counted out while the Big Ten champs celebrated their first Rose Bowl victory in 26 years.