Statistically speaking, Stanford and Michigan State seem about as similar as two opponents can be on the football field. There are some overall differences, with the Spartans owning the best overall defense in the nation and Stanford ranking 15th the most notable.
Cardinal coach David Shaw, who will be coaching in his second straight Rose Bowl, holds statistics in the same esteem as unfounded rumors.
"I hate statistics when they're used to justify things," Shaw said. "I'm into film, and when you put the film on, you're going to see two of the better defensive teams in the nation that play fast, that play physical, that you see 11 guys run to the ball, you see them play as a unit, and that's what you're going to see."
Michigan State (12-1) and Stanford (11-2) arrived in the Pasadena area the day after Christmas as both sides began to prepare for the 100th Rose Bowl on Wednesday with a 2 p.m. scheduled start on ABC and ESPN. The traditional visit to Disneyland complete, it's all business for the best teams in the Pac-12 and Big 10.
Watching film may be the best indicator of talent, but the wealth of information available through statistics is easier to dissect. Of course, there's no way to statistically analyze the offensive line, an area of significant strength for Stanford.
Senior left guard David Yankey (6-5, 313) earned his second straight unanimous All-America honor, while senior center Khalil Wilkes (6-3, 286), senior right tackle Cameron Fleming (6-6, 318) and sophomore left tackle Andrus Peat (6-7, 312) were named second team All-Pac-12. Senior right guard Kevin Danser (6-6, 296) is also a key figure.
Film from any number of games during the season will show the Cardinal offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage, especially against Oregon.
Stanford recorded drives of at least 89 yards seven times for touchdowns over the course of the year, twice marching 96 yards in the 26-20 victory over the Ducks. Only one of those drives came against a team with a losing record (93 yards against Cal).
What the Cardinal did against Oregon was to execute its offensive plans to near perfection, holding onto the ball for more than 42 minutes.
Stanford wins the time-of-possession battle nearly every game, but then so does Michigan State. The Cardinal needs to establish itself in the trenches in order to have a chance. It won't be pretty but Shaw doesn't care how it looks as much as he likes results.
"It's going to be blocking and tackling and running the ball and making big passes down the field and playing great defense and playing special teams and playing field position," Shaw said. "I think you're going to see strategy. I think you're going to see some young men that are excited to play the game of football and play it with passion."
The Spartans' defense allows a national-best 248.2 yards a game, including 80.8 rushing yards. Stanford ranks 15th in total defense, allowing 339 yards a game, including 91.2 against the run, third in the country.
"We've been good on defense for the last couple years," Shaw said. "This team is going to be challenged by a team that's played great competition, a team that comes every single week, a team that finds ways to win, whether it's run or throw, they'll do whatever it takes to try to win a football game."
Offensively, both teams will do whatever it takes to win. All-America return specialist Ty Montgomery, also Stanford's top receiver, may be the X-factor. Quarterback Kevin Hogan seems to rise to the level of the competition and his running ability will also make a difference.
"We have to prepare this year completely different," Shaw said. "We're playing a different team. Michigan State has been on a phenomenal run, nine straight games, tough competition, and has come to play every week, and we know it's going to be a great game. People that appreciate real football are going to love this game."
Another statistic to keep in mind is tackles-for-loss allowed. The Cardinal ranks fourth in the nation, giving up 3.69 per game, while the Spartans allow 4.62.
Gaffney gets his rest
Tyler Gaffney was one of just four Football Bowl Subdivision running backs who carried the ball at least 300 times during the regular season. Getting nearly a month break was good for his physical condition and mental health.
"He's just now starting to look like himself," Shaw said. "He's gotten beat up and we've been getting him off his feet, shortening his practice and taking reps away from him. He's starting to get his legs back. By the time we get to Southern California, he'll be ready to roll."
Gaffney never asked to come out. He kept insisting he was fine. Shaw said the only game Gaffney needed time off was against the Ducks, after he carried the ball 45 times.
"It's not just his size and strength but also desire," Shaw said. "He fights off the pain and soreness. He almost craves it."
Gaffney did not play in last year's Rose Bowl game as he was playing professional baseball.
Last time vs. Spartans
In the most lopsided bowl game victory in Stanford history, the Cardinal romped to a 38-0 win over Michigan State in the 1996 Sun Bowl. It was Stanford's first shutout since 1974.
The Sun Bowl victory completed what was then one of the most surprising turnarounds in the history of Stanford football. The cardinal was 2-5 overall and 1-3 in the Pac-10 and was not in anybody's bowl picture. But, head coach Tyrone Willingham led Stanford to four straight wins to conclude the regular season and finish in third place in the Pac-10.
The quarterback was Chad Hutchinson, who was named the game's MVP after throwing for 226 yards on 22-of-28 passing. The Defensive MVP was Stanford's Kailee Wong.
Stanford is 10-0 in its past 10 games against opponents ranked in the AP Top 25, including 6-0 this season. A win over No. 4 Michigan State would make it 7-0. However, the Cardinal is 15-42-3 all-time against top-five foes -- including a 7-5 mark since 2000.
Events on tap
Monday: Stanford Day at Santa Monica Pier, 3 p.m. Includes Beer Garden, Stanford Bookstore tent, free ride wristbands for Pacific Park, trapeze lessons, bike rental, book signing with authors of "Rags to Riches: The Rise of Stanford Football," (4 p.m.); giveaways (5:30 p.m.), Assistant coach chalk talk (6 p.m.), Rose Bowl pep rally with Stanford team captains (6:30 p.m.), buffet and no-host bar at Mariasol Restaurant (8 p.m.).
Tuesday: Kickoff Luncheon