My earliest football memory is the Rose Bowl. Jan. 1, 1998.
I wasn't really into sports at that age, at least sports that weren't hockey. I was playing with some toys in the living room. I remember hearing something about "Michigan." I think my grandparents were there. I have a faint image of someone with eye black on TV wearing a blue jersey getting a trophy. I would find out, years later, that was Brian Griese.
I remember the audible chuckle I made when Gary Bettman said the NHL owns New Year's Day. Dave Brandon will be at his football stadium on Wednesday, watching a hockey game. You can be sure he'd be watching his team in Pasadena if it was there.
The last time MSU played in the Rose Bowl, I had not yet been born. I don't know this feeling with the Spartans. I don't know this build-up to the game. I only know seeing other Big Ten teams playing. I only know most Big Ten teams losing. I've always rooted for other Big Ten teams in bowl games, but not the Rose Bowl. Maybe that's because it was a place I'd never seen MSU. I did root for U-M in the 2004 and 2005 games, still early in my non-hockey sports fandom.
The last time MSU clinched a Rose Bowl berth, Indiana head coach Bill Mallory went into the MSU locker room to congratulate the Spartans. He also told them to go to California and kick the Pac-10's ass, because the Big Ten was sick and tired of losing. Before the 1988 game, the Big Ten had lost 16 of the previous 18 Rose Bowls. MSU would go on to defeat USC for the second time that season, starting a trend of eight Big Ten wins in 12 Rose Bowls.
The Big Ten has currently lost nine of the last 10 Rose Bowls it has participated in (10 of 11 if you want to count Nebraska in the 2002 national championship game). A stretch like the 1990s is not coming after this one.
MSU isn't playing for the Big Ten. It's playing for itself. That was clear from the moment Jeremy Langford broke two tackles on his way to the clinching touchdown in Indianapolis, knocking Ohio State out of the national championship game and putting the SEC back in it. You're welcome, Mike Slive.
New Year's Day is college football, and its climax is the Rose Bowl. Now it's MSU's turn to play into the sunset.
By the numbers
4 - straight years in a BCS game for Stanford
1 - This is MSU's first "BCS" appearance (since 1998). It is also MSU's first Rose Bowl since 1988.
38-0 - The last time Stanford and MSU met, the Cardinal won in dominating fashion in the 1996 Sun Bowl.
5.0 - Yards per carry for Stanford's offense, No. 29 nationally.
2.7 - Yards per carry allowed by MSU's defense, No. 2 nationally.
4.4 - Yards per carry for MSU's offense, No. 58 nationally.
2.9 - Yards per carry allowed by Stanford's defense, No. 4 nationally.
3.08 - Sacks per game for Stanford's defense, No. 7 nationally.
1 - Sacks per game allowed by MSU's offense, No. 12 nationally.
17 - Takeaways by Stanford, No. 100 nationally.
13 - Giveaways by MSU, No. 6 nationally.
9.0 - Yards per pass attempt for Stanford's offense, No. 9 nationally.
5.1 - Yards per pass attempt allowed by MSU's defense, No. 2 nationally.
5.85 - Tackles per game for Max Bullough
Three keys for MSU:
Run the ball - This is pretty simple. MSU is a run-first team, and they were mostly kept in check against Ohio State, outside a couple long runs by Jeremy Langford, consistently getting hit at the line of scrimmage. Stanford's rush defense numbers are even better than Ohio State, and against better competition. MSU's didn't break out many jet sweeps with R.J. Shelton, as they had done throughout the season. Stanford runs a 3-4 defense, so, on inside runs, the offensive linemen will have to be athletic enough to block the linebackers at the second level. On outside runs, receivers and tight ends will have to do their part well.
Protect the quarterback - MSU struggled to run the ball early against the Buckeyes, but they opened up the passing game, and Connor Cook finished with a career-high passing yardage and a game MVP. Ohio State was one of the best teams at picking up sacks, as is Stanford. The Buckeyes recorded just one sack of Cook. MSU will want a repeat performance in pass protection.
Prevent big passing plays - The Cardinal average 9.0 yards per pass attempt, but they only attempt 22.5 passes per game (No. 117 nationally). They don't pass much, but they're effective when they do. We know MSU is going to load the box and leave single coverage on the outside. The focus is on Ty Montgomery (16.1 yards per catched), but Devon Cajuste also averages 21.8 yards per catch on 2.5 catches per game. Will Darqueze Dennard, Trae Waynes and the safeties be up to it?
Three keys for Stanford:
Run up the middle - Ohio State averaged 6.8 yards per carry against MSU, including 6.6 from Carlos Hyde. MSU's defensive weakness is up the middle, and that will be even more so with Bullough out. If Stanford is going to find rushing success on MSU, it's going to come right up the gut, where they love to go.
Turnovers - Stanford hasn't done a great job taking the ball away, while MSU is one of the best at holding on to it. In what is expected to be a low-scoring game, a couple turnovers either way could be the difference.
Win first down - The Cardinal are No. 6 nationally, converting third downs more than 51 percent of the time. On the other side, MSU opponents convert just 27.7 percent (No. 2). Favorable down-and-distance makes those third downs easier, especially for a team that doesn't pass the ball much.
Prediction: MSU 23-20
I'm a bit surprised to see Stanford so heavily favored, and this was before the Bullough suspension. These teams seem evenly matched, to me.
Maybe it's the narrative. Is MSU just happy to be there? They don't have anything to lose. For Stanford, it's a business trip. Or they could not care, having won it a year ago. Who knows.
I think this game goes either way and comes down to the end. Maybe a turnover in a bad spot is the difference. I don't think MSU will be able to run the ball much at all, but it will be interesting to see if Shelton is more prominent in this gameplan. I do think MSU will be able to pass the ball a bit, but they'll need to give Connor Cook enough time to get the throws off.
In the end, I'll say a late field goal from Michael Geiger gives MSU the lead, and a turnover seals the game, just like 1988.