No one knew that better than Stanford senior Tyler Gaffney. After gaining 67 yards (47 coming on one run) and scoring on a 16-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, he was held to just 24 yards on 18 carries the final three quarters.
Not too surprisingly, as Gaffney was stopped, so too was No. 5 Stanford as it let a 17-7 lead disappear in a frustrating 24-20 loss to the No. 4-ranked Spartans before an announced crowd of 95,173 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Wednesday.
"Everywhere I looked there was a green defender," Gaffney said. "They get into the backfield right away and that immediately disrupts the run. There's no space to figure something out."
Stanford finished its 11-3 season with a single-season rushing record of 2,904 yards, 162 of that coming against the Spartans (13-1). Yet, when Stanford needed just one yard with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter and the ball on its 34, the Cardinal failed to keep the drive going. End of game.
Ryan Hewitt got the call on that final carry and plowed into a line that featured some 3,000 pounds of Stanford players and equal of that for Michigan State. There was simply no place to run.
"You have to give it to Michigan State for stuffing that because everybody in the building knew exactly what was coming, a run up the middle," said Gaffney. "It was a test of wills, and they got the better of us."
"They came off the ball and we got about a foot and a half," Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan said. "We were six inches short."
Stanford's consensus All-America offensive lineman David Yankey said there was a little more to it than that.
"To be honest they gave us a look we didn't expect at all," he said. "It came down to that one play and they stopped us . . . They're one of the best defenses in the nation, and they proved it on every play."
Stanford head coach David Shaw defended his call because being successful on those plays during the season got the Cardinal to its second straight Rose Bowl Game for only the second time in school history.
"When I don't do that (run on short yardage), everybody goes crazy that we should have done this or should have that, so I don't worry about any of that stuff," Shaw said. "I'm going to put the ball in the hands of our guys and put it on the offensive line. We're going to go for it on fourth down in that situation . . . We got beat by a really good football team."
The Spartans' defense, featuring a nine-man line that dared Stanford to throw, locked down on the Cardinal after allowing two scoring drives in the first quarter. Stanford continued to put itself into hazardous situations after taking a 10-0 advantage.
"After the first quarter they become more movement-oriented," said Yankey, who'll likely give up his final year of eligibility and turn pro. "They did a lot of stuff and were able to play their style."
Gaffney, who lost 26 yards on carries through the first 13 games, was thrown for a loss a total of 15 yards against the Spartans.
"They have nine in the box," Gaffney explained. "They made adjustments after the first couple runs first couple of drives of the series — and we didn't respond like we needed to."
Another defining fourth-down play came with the game tied at 17 in the third quarter and Stanford on Michigan State's 36. Gaffney was called upon, as expected, and the Spartans knew it — tossing him for a three-yard loss.
"They're good at what they do," Shaw said of MSU's defense. "It's a nine-man front. There's a whole bunch of guys in there . . . Gaffney snuck out a couple, made a couple of great runs and a couple of them he didn't have an opportunity."
Stanford seemed unstoppable early, gaining 146 yards in the first quarter. The Cardinal moved the ball 159 yards over the final three quarters combined.
Hogan, who completed 10 of 18 passes, with one interception, for 143 yards and no touchdowns, completed a 43-yarder to Michael Rector to open the game and a 51-yarder to Devon Cajuste. Take away those two completions and Hogan was 8-for-16 for just 49 yards. His best weapon coming into the game, wide receiver Ty Montgomery, was held to three catches for 21 yards before injuring his left knee on a kickoff return early in the fourth quarter and did not return. He'll have an MRI to determine the extent of the damage.
On the other side, Stanford's defense stuffed the run — allowing just 65 yards on 35 carries — but the Spartans went to the air and gained 325 of its 397 yards after the first quarter.
Connor Cook threw for a career-high 332 yards, just 56 in the first quarter, and a pair of touchdowns as he rallied the Spartans.
Cook's 25-yard touchdown toss to Tony Lippett was the go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter. Jordan Williamson kicked his second field goal of the game with 4:15 remaining to make it 24-20.
Stanford's defense did it's job and got the ball back with enough time for a possible winning drive.
"We just realize that if we kept going, kept getting after it, we're going to get opportunities to make plays," Stanford senior linebacker Shayne Skov said. "We got some and we missed some.
"You fight all season to get to these moments, to have these opportunities . . . so to lose is incredibly difficult. We're happy with the way we played but it definitely hurts. It's not easy to lose."
Michigan State freshman Mike Geiger kicked a 31-yard field goal to tie the game at 17 early in the second quarter after the Cardinal gave up a 61-yard pass play.
Stanford made it look too easy on its opening drive. A 43-yard pass from Hogan to Rector opened the field for Gaffney, who went the final 16 yards of the 7-play, 77-yard drive.
The Cardinal scored again on a 34-yard field goal by Williamson late in the first quarter. Gaffney's 47-yard jaunt helped give Stanford good field position.
The highlights for Stanford, however, were few and far between. Palo Alto High grad Kevin Anderson picked off Cook and returned it 40 yards in the second quarter for the final Cardinal touchdown of the game.
Despite the loss, Stanford finished a four-year run that saw the Cardinal play in four straight BCS games and go 46-8 overall (only Alabama at 47-6 is better during that time). Only two of those losses were by more than a touchdown. Shaw is now 34-7 in his three seasons.
Shaw praised his senior class, which he said "is the most accomplished group of football players to ever go through Stanford University. Regardless of today's outcome, that's the truth . . . Four straight BCS games . . . it's rare company."
Still, there was no Hollywood ending for Stanford this season as it played a virtual mirror image of itself.
"Two teams that play great defense, that run the ball and try to make big plays in the passing game," Shaw explained of the matchup. "One has got to win, one has got to lose, and we didn't make enough plays for us to be on the right side . . . They played better. They made more plays. That's the bottom line."