- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- The word "physical" has been used 12,486,234 times by media, coaches and players during the buildup to the 100th Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO between Stanford and Michigan State.
The Spartans of the Big Ten play physical football. They run the ball and play tough defense. The Cardinal of the Pac-12 play physical football. They run the ball and play tough defense.
"We kind of look at Stanford as a spitting image of us," Michigan State All-American cornerback Darqueze Dennard said.
Said Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley, "It's nice to have that smashmouth football team to play against. They're the bullies in their conference, too. We know it's going to be an old-school Rose Bowl where teams are going straight at each other. There's obviously going to be a little trickery, but there's not going to be any misconception in what the other team wants. Each of us is going to run at each other, and whoever is going to stop the other one first is the team that's going to win."
Michigan State arrives with what is arguably the nation's best defense, at least statistically. The Spartans are No. 1 in the nation in total and rushing defense, No. 2 in pass efficiency defense and No. 4 in scoring defense.
Stanford, playing against superior offenses, is No. 15 in total defense, No. 3 in rush defense, No. 10 in scoring defense and No. 47 in pass efficiency defense.
Offense? Stanford is better, averaging 33.2 points per game compared to 29.8 for the Spartans.
There is one common opponent in Notre Dame, but Michigan State's close loss on Sept. 21 on the road was against a healthy Fighting Irish, while Stanford's home win on Nov. 30 was not. Further, that game is where all the Michigan State players point when asked what was the launching point of their season.
The Spartans beat Iowa the next week, and quarterback Connor Cook was made the full-time, no-quick-hook-anymore starter. That ignited their regular season, one that was capped with an impressive win over unbeaten Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.
Stanford has more quality wins -- the Irish, Oregon, UCLA, Washington and twice over Arizona State -- but it also lost at Utah and at USC. Despite those losses, the Cardinal topped ESPN.com's "Championship Drive Rating," a metric that measures who had the most impressive season based on its schedule. Michigan State ranked fifth. Stanford's schedule was fourth toughest in the nation. The Spartans was 56th.
There also is a fly in the ointment for Michigan State: The suspension of All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough, a two-time team captain and the leader of the Spartans defense. You can expect the Cardinal to test his replacements, Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris.
"[Bullough is] a smart player who kind of lines their defense up, makes checks when they need to make checks," Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt said. "He runs their defense. He's the heart and soul of their defense. I think it'll be a tough loss for them."
It also hurts that he's a senior, missing out on the Spartans first Rose Bowl berth in 26 years.
Meanwhile, Stanford will be seeing the last from an outstanding class of seniors, one that has led the program to four consecutive BCS bowl games.
"This is really a senior-laden group," senior linebacker Shayne Skov said. "We really take it upon ourselves to leave this place with the right legacy. We want to make sure we leave the right message for guys that come after us."
That message, however, is the same for both teams and therefore at cross purposes.
"We expect the utmost physicality," Hewitt said. "We expect the most physical team we've played. They are arguably the most elite team we've played. We expect a physical bout. It's the Rose Bowl."
Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen put it even more simply. He said, "I feel like the toughest team is going to win."
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