QB Connor Cook salutes the MSU fans after the Spartans' triumph. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
Pasadena, Calif. -- This was the only way it could end, with a swarm of Green swallowing another intrepid ball-carrier, with the defense stuffing another power, with the Spartans leaping from their sideline and racing onto fresh, sacred ground.
At the end of a remarkable trek, all the traits that made Michigan State a championship team were on graphic display. Their resilient quarterback, their punishing defenders, their unwavering ability to take any hit and recover. The Spartans beat Stanford 24-20 on New Year’s Day to become Rose Bowl champs, and they did it with classic force.
The final defensive play was the season in short form, as backup linebacker Kyler Elsworth barreled through and stuffed Stanford’s Ryan Hewitt on fourth down. The huge horde of Michigan State fans among the 95,173 in attendance was delirious, and as culminations go, this was as good as it gets.
What does it all mean? To Spartan fans who’d waited 26 years for a return to this hallowed place, it meant just about everything. Michigan State finished 13-1 and should be ranked at least in the top three, and when Dantonio was asked what it meant, he didn’t hesitate.
“Completion,” he said on the field. “It’s a special time for all Spartans, and we came here in force. The resilience we showed all season long — we knew this year, if we found the inches, we could be something special. And 13-1 is pretty special. Dream big! Dream big!”
The crowd roared, and when everyone recovers, they’ll realize this was branded a dream but actually was raw, stunning reality. In a terrific battle, the Spartans basically wore down their last obstacle, and when the Cardinal needed 1 yard with 1:46 left to keep its hopes alive, Michigan State wasn’t budging.
There was Elsworth, taking over for the suspended Max Bullough, leaping practically into the Pasadena sky to stop the runner. The former walk-on was making the first start of his five-year career, and filled in exactly as he should.
“This is the way everyone wants to end their career,” said Elsworth, still in uniform long after the game. “At first, it was really nerve-wracking, taking on a big role. I came in with the demeanor, I’m gonna get the job done.”
It’s the Michigan State demeanor, worn so well by Dantonio, exemplified by quarterback Connor Cook and embodied by the best, toughest defense in the country. Stanford has evolved into college football royalty, but Michigan State bows to no crowns, not anymore.
Cook again was the gutsy leader who made plays — some risky, some great — and rebounded from errors. He threw a costly interception returned for a touchdown but kept firing, and make no mistake, Dantonio practices precisely what he preaches. If it’s resilience he demands, it’s resilience he allows to happen, and he kept going to his quarterback.
Cook completed 22 of 36 passes for 332 yards, and his 25-yard strike to Tony Lippett with 13:22 left gave Michigan State its first lead, and a chance to cap one of the greatest seasons in program history.
“I woke up this morning and I knew the day might be very, very special, and if we played hard, great things were going to happen,” Dantonio said. “No magic to it, we just kept playing.”
Before the last fourth-down stuffing, there was another just as big. And this will be the enduring image of this Michigan State team — stopping runners in their tracks to sustain the trek.
Stanford was almost arrogant in its determination to out-tough its opponent. Tied 17-17 late in the third quarter, the Cardinal faced a fourth-and-3 at the Spartans’ 36. Sure enough, they simply handed the ball to Tyler Gaffney, who was swarmed under a blitz led by linebacker Denicos Allen.
“Fourth-and-1 is what we preach on, what we do, what Stanford football is all about,” Gaffney said. “It was a test of wills and Michigan State got the better of us.”
What does pent-up passion look like and sound like? Here in Southern California, it looked green and sounded urgent. It was evident in the gigantic Michigan State banners hung in downtown Los Angeles, in the throngs of Spartan fans filling the streets and the seats, an estimated 50,000 strong.
You could see the different perspectives from the start. On one sideline, it was staid Stanford, prim and primed in white, in a BCS bowl for the fourth straight year. On the other side was newcomer Michigan State, players bouncing and yelling and exhorting just moments before the opening kickoff.
For two teams built similarly, on defense and toughness, the contrast was stark. The Spartans came out with (semi-reckless) abandon, throwing often. And Stanford coach David Shaw apparently didn’t get the memo about Michigan’s State top-rated defense. The Cardinal hammered and hammered, and after its early burst, went nowhere. They’ve bullied plenty of opponents in the Pac-12, but these Spartans take bullying personally, not lightly.
Stanford led 10-0 late in the first quarter and it was about to get worse when Cook threw a bad pass directly to linebacker Kevin Anderson for an easy interception. Except that it went through Anderson’s hands and right to Macgarrett Kings for a 14-yard pickup, and with that break, the Spartans seemed to calm down.
This was new territory in many ways. The Spartans hadn’t faced a double-digit deficit all season, so it was fair to wonder how they’d rebound. How? With their standard dose of feisty fearlessness, right now to that fabulous leap into the night by a guy making the first and final start of his career.
“It’s kind of the perfect ending — fourth-down stop, five offensive linemen against five defensive linemen,” defensive tackle Tyler Hoover said of Elsworth. “I think that was (Elsworth’s) dream play.”
When dreams become real, they’re not dreams anymore. The Spartans traveled a long way for confirmation and completion, and in the most fitting way possible, that’s exactly what they got.