LOS ANGELES — The banging and crashing will be more severe than from any cymbals on the parade route.
Stanford center Khalil Wilkes will be the conductor. When he snaps the ball in Wednesday’s Rose Bowl, helmets will smack and players will grunt. The game’s most intense, interesting subplot will be nasty and physical, with Stanford’s stingy offensive line facing Michigan State’s greedy defensive front seven.
“This is going to be tough sledding,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “It’s going to go all the way down to the end. People that appreciate real football are going to love this game.”
This is the 100th Rose Bowl game, with an appropriate throwback feel. It’s two quiet, respectable coaches. It’s two simple sets of uniforms. And it’s a line-of-scrimmage battle that any granddaddy would appreciate.
On one side, there’s the Michigan State defensive line and linebackers, who have allowed the fewest yards per rushing attempt (2.7) in college football this season and allowed only 80 rushing yards per game.
On the other, there’s the Stanford offensive front, which numbers from five to eight — yes, eight — depending on how many linemen the Cardinal require to execute an offense that averaged 210 rushing yards this year.
“They try to knock you off the ball, try to pancake you, and we’re a physical defense,” Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen said. “It’s just a challenge for us, and it’s a challenge for them. They haven’t seen a defense like us before. It’s going to be interesting going up against them, but we’re all looking forward to it.”
When parties from both teams spoke at Friday’s downtown news conferences, the eagerness seemed palpable. This is, in a sense, an on-field matchup of Stanford’s old money vs. Michigan State’s new money.
Former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, who played quarterback at Michigan, brought a Big Ten mentality to Stanford six years ago. The Cardinal, once soft and mediocre, became a run-first, run-often unit that wore down opposing defenses. Shaw, Harbaugh’s successor, has maintained that philosophy since 2011.
Stanford’s offensive line includes four seniors, three of whom are fifth-year players. David Yankey is an All-America guard and the leader of a unit that is known for its size, and not just in terms of bulk.
When the Cardinal goes into its “max protect” package, as many as three extra linemen will clog up the line of scrimmage and open holes for tailback Tyler Gaffney, who rushed for 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. Stanford’s line has also allowed only 15 sacks in 13 games.
“They have a lot of big guys up front,” Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “They’re a very powerful, heavy-set team. They don’t try to run things slow, and they are not going to hide anything that they’re going to do. It’s going to be right in front of you, and the biggest thing is you just have to stop them.”
If any team can do it, it’s Michigan State, and that’s a surprise. Four months ago, some observers considered the Spartans’ defense to be a potential weakness, but nobody is saying that now.
Under defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, college football’s assistant coach of the year, the Spartans led all FBS teams in total defense (248.2 yards per game) and opponent third-down conversions (.277).
The Spartans, led by Allen (a team-high 91 tackles and 5.5 sacks) and Calhoun (a team-high 7.5 sacks), are adept at disguising their defensive packages and blitzing from all angles, with anyone.
Both teams have strong resumes, but both have warts. This game, it seems clear, won’t be won by trick plays or newfangled zone-read offenses. Which team will win? The one that hits the hardest for the longest.
“They’re physical, they’re strong,” Gaffney said of the Spartans’ front, “but we pride ourselves on being the exact same thing, being strong and moving guys against their will. It’s going to be a test of will.”