It wasn’t long ago that every fan and expert made their predictions on who would win this year’s Big Ten Title and compete in the Rose Bowl. While most fans and experts predicted that the Ohio State Buckeyes would be that team, it’s safe to say nearly no one predicted that the Michigan State Spartans would be there competing for a Rose Bowl title against the Stanford Cardinals after defeating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten Title earlier this season.
While many Spartan fans are happy and proud of the Spartans accomplishments this season, they must remember that the journey isn’t over yet. Just like at the beginning of the season, there are plenty of fans and experts saying that Michigan State has no chance of beating Stanford and winning the Rose Bowl but I’m here to say differently. There is no doubt in my mind that the Spartans have a chance to defeat Stanford and become Rose Bowl champions but only if they follow certain steps to victory.
When it comes to upsetting Stanford, it all starts with the defense of the Spartans. The Spartans defense must step up and play their best football if the Spartans have any chance of winning this game. The first key is to slow down Stanford’s running game and make them one-dimensional which is not an easy task. Nonetheless, it’s not an impossible task and to have any chance of slowing down running back Tyler Gaffney, the Spartan defensive line must control the line of scrimmage, by doing that they allow linebackers Denicos Allen and company to do what they do best which is make plays in the backfield. However, with linebacker Max Bullough being out, I look for Allen to be even more assertive in his leadership role and keep the defense together along with cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The defense must also keep an eye out for quarterback Kevin Hogan in the running game, he may not be Braxton Miller but he is known to make a few plays with his feet. So while the Spartans don’t have to fear him, they should be aware of him. With that being said, if the Spartans can contain Gaffney, they will force Stanford to be one-dimensional and force quarterback Kevin Hogan to beat them through the air.
Now when it comes to slowing down Hogan and the Stanford passing game, it all starts with the Spartans defensive line creating some form of pressure and challenging him to make quick uneasy throws. Doing that will open up opportunities for the Spartan secondary who must also perform well in this game. While I would like for the Spartans defense to be able create pressure on Hogan, the secondary shouldn’t rely on that. Spartan cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes must keep the Stanford receivers contained and limit the big plays. I also look for Dennard to shut down wide receiver Ty Montgomery, now that’s not an easy job but if anybody can do it, it’s Dennard. I would even suggest that they bracket him but with that strategy the rest of the secondary has to do their part.
However, as much as everyone wants to talk about the Spartan defense, everyone needs to remember that the Spartan offense must step up as well. While I have no doubt that the Spartans defense will have their big moments in this game, it’s not easy for any defense, even the Spartans defense to completely shut down the Stanford offense for four quarters. Stanford is a good offensive team, no one can deny that, and you have to treat them like you treat the Denver Broncos. Basically meaning that the Spartans defense will get their key defensive stops but the offense must capitalize on those opportunities. If the offense doesn’t perform well, then the Spartans defense will be forced to win the game by committing and scoring off turnovers which you don’t want to do if you’re the Spartans.
So for the Spartans offense to have success they must continue doing what they do best which is running the ball. Running back Jeremy Lanford must run the ball well and challenge the Stanford defense. Now I assume that Stanford will focus on slowing down the run just as much as the Spartan defense will focus on slowing down Standford’s run game. However, I don’t look for Langford to dominate. Langford needs to offer balance and more importantly help control the clock and improve third down efficiency.
However, I feel the real x-factor in this game is the Spartan passing game which is led by the quarterback Connor Cook. I said earlier, that Stanford’s defense main goal will be to contain the run and force Cook to beat them through the air, so Cook must step up and play well. Cook will have the opportunity to make plays against the defense and it starts with taking what the defense gives him. Cook can’t afford to turn the ball over in this game and to avoid that he must spread the ball around and use his various receivers, such as Tony Lippett, Bennie Fowler, Macgarrett Kings. I wouldn’t be surprise if Stanford decides to stack up the box against Spartans to slow down the run, if they do indeed use that strategy, Cook would be smart to take advantage of his various opportunities, specifically down the field. However for this plan to be successful, Cook must put the ball only where his target can catch it and the receivers must make the big play and catch the ball. The offensive line must also play their part, Stanford doesn’t have an amazing pass rush but they do have a true disruptive force in linebacker Trent Murphy. He leads the nation in sacks and tackles for loss and the Spartans offense needs to be aware of him at all times and have a game plan to slow him down. They probably won’t be able to stop him completely but the less disruptive he is, the better it is for the Spartans.
While I feel the Spartans offense has improved this season, you can’t forget that they still make a bad habit of leaving points on the field whether it be a field goal or touchdown. They can’t afford to do that in this game. Every scoring opportunity is big for the Spartans because while I feel that the defense will get some key stops, I say again, that I doubt they will stop Stanford’s offense for four quarters so the offense must capitalize on scoring opportunities. This team has been able to rely on the defense to help them win games, but they can’t just rely on that mentality. The Spartans also need to get off to a good start in this game, mainly the offense needs to get on the scoreboard early.
Overall, if the Spartans follow those steps, there is nothing stopping them winning the Rose Bowl. It won’t be easy but if both sides of the ball step up, they have a chance. Which leads me to my prediction in which I have the Spartans upsetting Stanford and winning the Rose Bowl.
Written by LBeasley, Sports Contributor for Radio One Detroit
Listen to LBeasley’s Radio Show, “Sports Talk with L-Beasley” every Mon, Wed & Fri from 6-8pm (ET) on LBeasley.com