The 100th edition of the Rose Bowl features two of the top defenses in the nation as Michigan State takes on Stanford. Entering bowl season, the Spartans led the nation in yards per game (247.8), yards per play (3.9) and third-down defense (28 percent conversion rate).
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).
A 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.
Michigan State’s Strength
It is hard to identify just one strength for Michigan State’s defense; the Spartans have been among the nation’s best against the run and the pass this season.
Michigan State’s defense allowed the fewest rushing yards per game (80.5), yards per rush (2.7) and 10-yard runs (30) in the FBS entering the bowls. 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.
MSU vs Throws of 15+ Yards
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 break ups and 12 interceptions this season. With this group, Michigan State rarely gives up big plays.
The Spartans allow opponents to complete 23 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.
The strength of Stanford’s defense is its front seven. Led by linebackers Shane Skov and Trent Murphy, the Cardinal rank tied for sixth in the FBS with 98 tackles for loss and tied for first with 40 sacks entering bowl season.
Sending 4 or Fewer Pass Rushers
Stanford Entering Bowl Season
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.
Trent Murphy, who is often the edge rusher, has the second-most sacks (14) in the FBS. 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 defense has also excelled in the running game. The Cardinal rank third in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game (91.2) and fourth in yards allowed 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.
The Cardinal lead the Pac-12 in yards per rush (4.5) and touchdowns allowed outside of the tackles (4).
Which defense has the edge?
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.
Both teams have similar game plans: Play solid defense and rely on a run-heavy offense to control the game. It should be an old-school, smash-mouth football game. As David Shaw said in a recent interview, “People that appreciate real football are going to love this game.”