Michigan State takes over 2nd half, defeats Stanford in Rose Bowl

By Joe Rexrode

PASADENA, Calif. — For the fifth time since Michigan State started playing football in 1896, one of its teams got a chance to play in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, in the most coveted destination in the sport.

For the fourth time, the Spartans left as Rose Bowl champions.

Twice facing their biggest deficit of the season while playing without the quarterback of their defense, they rode his replacements, the quarterback of their offense and an incredible showing of fan support to a 24-20 victory over the Stanford Cardinal in the 100th edition of the game on Wednesday.

“It’s sort of living the dream,” said MSU coach Mark Dantonio, whose Spartans finished an all-time best 13-1 after winning their first matchup of top five teams since 1966. “I woke up this morning and I knew the day might be very, very special if we played hard _ great things were going to happen, we had possibilities, and that’s what we did. We just kept playing. No magic to it.”

Senior linebacker and former walk-on Kyler Elsworth, filling in for the suspended Max Bullough in the first start and final game of his career, combined with Shilique Calhoun on a fourth-and-inches stop with 1:46 left to preserve the victory.

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Elsworth, Calhoun and sophomore linebacker Darien Harris all went over the top to hold fullback Ryan Hewitt to no gain from the Cardinal 34.

“You have to give it to Michigan State for stuffing that, because everybody in the building knew exactly what was coming,” said Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney, the decoy on the play. “A run was coming up the middle, it was a test of wills, and they got the better of us.”

A stadium packed with MSU fans _ roughly 60,000 of the 95,173 in attendance were wearing green _ roared in approval as the Spartans went frenzied on their sideline. MSU got the final kneel-down from senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell, replacing the sophomore quarterback who threw for a career-high 332 yards and won the Offensive MVP Award.

Connor Cook lobbed an interception for a touchdown and tried to throw a couple more, but he kept playing. His 25-yard strike to Tony Lippett with 13:22 left proved to be the game-winner.

The No.4 Spartans had “a little touristy feeling” early in the game, Cook said, and twice trailed by 10 points for their largest deficits of the season.

But they outplayed No.5 Stanford (11-3) for most of the second half and will finish in the top five in the rankings for the first time since after that 1966 season and the “Game of the Century” tie between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 MSU.

The Spartans also gave the Big Ten its first Rose Bowl victory since 2010, after three straight Wisconsin losses here _ the most recent to Stanford a year ago _ and a league stretch of nine losses in 10 games.

“We’ve got a one-game winning streak,” Dantonio joked.

Jeremy Langford ran for 84 yards and a touchdown, losing his first fumble since the season opener. Lippett (five catches, 94 yards) and Bennie Fowler (two catches, 97 yards) led a terrific day for MSU’s receiving corps.

But that top-ranked defense was the story _ which was going to be the case either way after MSU suspended Bullough a week before the game for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Several MSU players had “40” in marker on their towels in tribute to Bullough. They played for him and had to come up big to win without him.

“When we first heard of it, I wasn’t too worried,” MSU senior linebacker Denicos Allen said of the suspension, “because I know Kyler Elsworth.”

Elsworth played most of the game in place of Bullough, with Harris also seeing some action. Harris actually took Bullough’s spot on the play of the game in MSU’s goal-line defense, which already includes Elsworth.

Facing fourth-and-inches and needing a touchdown to win, Stanford called time-out with 1:46 left. When MSU saw the Cardinal in a “jumbo” package, the Spartans called time-out.

“We said on the sideline they were gonna run it up the middle _ we actually practiced (going against) that play last week,” Harris said.

“You can’t go through them,” MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said, “so you’ve got to go over them.”

When Stanford lined up again, the Spartans saw what they needed to see _ tight “splits,” or separation between the linemen, who were in four-point stances. Harris and Elsworth went airborne as planned, while Calhoun freelanced and got his own piece of Hewitt.

Elsworth got the most of him, following up Allen’s fourth-down stop to beat Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game with his own piece of MSU lore.

“I was hoping (they’d) hand the ball off,” said Elsworth, the game’s defensive MVP. “You can’t really change directions up in the air. You’re either the zero or the hero on that play.”