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BILL DWYRE

Rose Bowl: Stanford hits Michigan State brick wall again and again

Stubborn to the end, the college football team known for its running game kept running — until the Spartans shut it down.

January 01, 2014|Bill Dwyre
  • Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney is stopped by Spartans linebacker Taiwan Jones (34), defensive lineman Micajah Reynolds (60) and linebacker Marcus Rush (44) on a third-down run in the third quarter.
Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney is stopped by Spartans linebacker… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Stanford didn't go totally without a victory in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday, even though Michigan State won the game, 24-20.

The Cardinal and its young and successful coach, David Shaw, took top honors in stubbornness. They were rock-solid in that category. No matter what the score, what the situation, what point in the game, they played "Stanford football." Translation is simple: "You establish the running game."

You do so, even if you end up establishing only that Michigan State is too good on defense to allow you to establish the running game.

This should have come as no surprise. Michigan State came into the game as, statistically, the toughest in the country against the run. So Stanford ran, and ran, certainly in situations in which doing otherwise seemed wise.

The phrase about beating your head against a wall works here. Good thing Cardinal players wore helmets.

Stanford ended up stubbornly rushing for 162 yards. However, when you see that almost half of that was on runs by Tyler Gaffney of 47 yards and Michael Rector of 27, it doesn't look quite as good. Looking on the bright side, the Spartans rushed for only 65, so Stanford really showed them there.

But then, something else might be considered here: Michigan State won the game.

The two situations calling the most attention to Stanford's eyes-forward, jaws-locked approach were fourth-down plays, each crucial in a game that could, and did, turn quickly.

The first was in the third quarter, the score tied, 17-17, and the Cardinal marching with a fourth-and-three at Michigan State's 36. Once again, Stanford attempted to establish its running game. The ball was handed to Gaffney, who ended up at the 39 after establishing that, yes, the brick wall was still there.

The second was in the fourth quarter, and a Stanford repeat of last year's Rose Bowl victory was really on the line. With 1:46 left, Michigan State led, 24-20, Stanford was on its 34 and it was fourth down and one.

Guess what.

Stanford sent 246-pound fullback Ryan Hewitt into the line for his only carry of the game. He gained zero yards. They found it again. The brick wall was still there.

Game over. Roll the credits.

Shaw was asked about both plays. You hoped he'd say there was a miscommunication, or his quarterback, Kevin Hogan, had a cramp in his throwing arm, or had a brain cramp and called an audible. Nope. Not the orchestrator of Stubborn U.

Of Gaffney's three-yard loss in the third quarter, Shaw said, "That was the play call," he said. "They played it well."

Of Hewitt's failure on fourth and one, he said, "No, it was the play call. It looked initially like we were going to get the push, and then we got stopped up front."

Oh, my. Those stubborn brick walls.

When Gaffney was asked about the fourth-down plays, it was almost as if he were reading from a script: "We take pride in that. Fourth and one is what we preach on, what we do, what Stanford football is all about.

"You have to give it to Michigan State for stuffing that, because everybody in the building knew exactly what was coming."

Ah, yes. Surprise and creativity at key moments in football games have always been overrated.

Stanford entered the game ranked No. 5 in the country, the Brick Wall No. 4. Everything pointed to a close game, and that certainly came to pass.

It was the 100th Rose Bowl, the 100th Grandaddy of Them All, and it deserved the kind of great show that all the external factors produced, both for the usual massive TV audience and the 95,173 in attendance.

Temperature at game time was 78 degrees, or 77.5 with the windchill factor. The distant mountains glimmered as always, although there was a slight haze that made the view just slightly less than high-definition quality. These are situations Southern Californians have learned to cope with.

The revered Vin Scully, legendary Dodgers broadcaster, was the grand marshal of the parade, and to those who know him well, "grand" is not quite enough of a superlative. He got to toss the coin before the game and cleverly stuck it to Northern California and its Stanford fans by making the coin come up for Michigan State.

Take that, all you Giants fans.

The Stanford band, known as a "scatter band," apparently because it has never learned to line up and march, scattered wonderfully and was its usual hoot. The tree wore red leggings.

The game came down to an enticing matchup of traditional programs.

The Spartans are from a huge university, led by a coach named Mark Dantonio, who has built things so well in East Lansing that, when Texas came knocking recently, Michigan State opened up the wallet and persuaded him to stay.

Stanford is a smaller school but has a similar tradition of excellence, especially in the classroom. When it is good in football, it almost seems unfair. Opponents end up playing a team that can talk about splitting the atom while quoting Chaucer and beating your brains out on the football field.

In so many ways, it was a match made in heaven, played on a day that was made in the same place.

At first, it seemed hard to pick a winner. But then, stubborn met the brick wall.

You know the rest.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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