- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- As Lorenzo White watched the confetti fall at Lucas Oil Stadium and Michigan State raise the Big Ten championship trophy Dec. 7, one thought came to mind.
"It's been a long time coming," he said.
White starred at running back for Michigan State's last Rose Bowl team, 26 long years ago. Fueled by a stifling defense and a run-heavy offense -- sound familiar? -- the Spartans blitzed through the Big Ten to earn their first trip to Pasadena since the 1965 season.
It looked like the start of a surge for a team featuring four future first-round NFL draft picks -- White, wide receiver Andre Rison, offensive tackle Tony Mandarich and linebacker Percy Snow -- and a strong coaching staff led by George Perles. But Michigan State once again went more than two decades before its next Rose Bowl berth.
"It's great to have them back," said Perles, who coached Michigan State from 1983 to '94. "It brings back some great old memories."
MSU's latest Rose Bowl run in many way mirrors the path taken in 1987. Both squads faced adversity in nonleague play, regrouped after a loss to Notre Dame, began their ascent with a win at Iowa's Kinnick Stadium in the Big Ten opener and never looked back.
Both leaned heavily on talented defenses guided by coordinators (Pat Narduzzi now, Nick Saban then) pegged for big things. Both offenses struggled before Big Ten play but eventually settled down. Running back Jeremy Langford's workload isn't as heavy as White's in 1987 -- White logged 357 carries for 1,572 yards and 16 touchdowns, and backup Blake Ezor added 617 yards -- but he has been just as valuable in closing out Big Ten wins.
The 1987 "Gang Green" defense surrendered an average of just 37.6 rush yards in Big Ten play, the second-lowest average in league history behind the 1965 Spartans (34.6), and forced 35 turnovers. The current "Spartan Dawgs" lead the nation in rush defense (80.8 YPG) and thrive on takeaways, recording a league-leading 27, tied for 17th nationally.
"The [current] defense reminds me of our defense 26 years ago," Perles said. "That proves again you win championships with defense."
MSU defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett, a boundary cornerback on the 1987 squad, notes that the schemes were different -- the 1987 team primarily used a Cover 3 defense that Perles brought over from the Pittsburgh Steelers; the current defense mainly lines up in Cover 4, often leaving the corners isolated on opposing receivers. But both defenses keyed on stopping the run and had fiery coordinators with uncompromising standards.
Saban, who turned 37 that October, oversaw a secondary that recorded 28 interceptions. Safeties Todd Krumm and John Miller combined for 17 picks.
"Nick had a lot of, as he would say, piss and vinegar in him," Barnett said. "He was on us about every little thing and demanded excellence and perfection. So in turn, we got turnovers, we stopped the run, we tackled well and played with toughness, similar to our current defense."
This year's defense recorded its signature performance Nov. 2 against Michigan, holding the Wolverines to minus-48 net rush yards, the lowest total in Michigan history, while racking up seven sacks. It surely reminded some of MSU's 1987 visit to Ohio Stadium, where the Spartans held Ohio State to 2 net rush yards (minus-14 in the second half) and had seven sacks in a 13-7 win.
"That's when we realized how dominant our defense was," said Dan Enos, then a freshman reserve quarterback for MSU who later became an assistant coach at his alma mater. "After that game, we thought, 'Man, we've got a really, really good shot here.'"
There wasn't as much optimism when MSU entered Big Ten play at 1-2. After beating eventual Rose Bowl opponent USC on Labor Day -- in the first night game at Spartan Stadium -- MSU fell to eventual No. 2 Florida State and to Notre Dame, scoring a combined 11 points in the losses.
"That was our nonconference: Southern Cal, Notre Dame and Florida State," Enos said. "Who does that these days? Nobody."
Things didn't get much easier against Iowa, which led 14-7 at halftime. Perles didn't hold back as he addressed his team in the infamous pink locker room at Kinnick. The Spartans rallied to win 19-14.
"He came in, gave us a few choice words," White said with a laugh. "From that point on, we never looked back. The whole season changed."
The next week, MSU beat Michigan in East Lansing for the first time since 1969, thanks to seven interceptions. Despite a tie at Illinois, the Spartans faced Indiana on Nov. 14 with a Rose Bowl berth on the line for both teams.
White carried 56 times, one shy of the Big Ten/NCAA record, for 292 yards as MSU crushed Indiana 27-3. The postgame celebration included a surprise visit from Indiana coach Bill Mallory, who briefly addressed the team.
He congratulated the Spartans and, mindful of the Big Ten's six-game Rose Bowl slide, told players to "go out to the coast and kick [USC's] ass."
"That fired us up," White said. "For another coach to show how much class he had to come over to us and tell us that we had a fine football team, and for us to go out there and kick some butt, that was great."
Mallory, who received Perles' permission before speaking, doesn't recall going into any other opposing locker room after a game in his long career.
"I just had that gut feel," Mallory said. "I didn't want to get carried away, but I wanted to make sure they got our support."
The Spartans' 20-17 Rose Bowl win in many ways typified the 1987 team. They attempted only seven passes but connected for some big gains to Rison, and White had 113 rush yards and two touchdowns.
Snow, who recorded 17 tackles and earned game MVP honors, led a defense that forced five takeaways.
"It was a team loaded with toughness," Perles said.
Barnett, just a redshirt sophomore, expected the Rose Bowl to become an annual trip.
"Little did I know it was going to take 26 years," he said. "I'm really excited for our players to get a chance to experience the granddaddy of them all."