Pac-12: Connor Cook

Video data polishes College Total QBR

February, 9, 2015
Feb 9
Wire photosConnor Cook (left), Blake Sims were among those most affected by postseason adjustments to QBR.
Every year, ESPN’s College Total QBR metric undergoes minor changes at the end of the season. In the interest of complete transparency, an explanation and analysis of the 2014 changes are below.

Total QBR is an all-encompassing metric that captures all aspects of a quarterback’s play – passing, rushing, sacks, fumbles, penalties, etc. It is built off play-by-play data and accounts for down, distance, field position, clock and score to determine which quarterbacks are the most and least efficient in the country. A full explanation of Total QBR can be found here.

College QBR differs from the NFL version in a few important ways. First, College QBR adjusts for the strength of opposing defenses and the NFL version does not. This is necessary in college because of the varying competition faced in conference and non-conference play.

Another important difference is that the NFL version uses live video tracking to capture data such as air yards of passes, number of pass rushers, run type, etc. This information is not widely available for all FBS schools, particularly the lower-level ones, so - during the season - this component of QBR is estimated from play-by-play data (down, distance, target position, etc.). The estimates are based on statistical analysis and modeling.

Once the season is complete, ESPN obtains video-derived data for the majority of FBS conferences (all Power 5, American, Mountain West and a few others) and replaces the estimated component of QBR with exact data.

Factoring in the exact data generally does not result in significant changes to a player’s season QBR, though there were some notable changes in 2014. A complete list of updated player QBRs can be found here, but below are some notable changes. As you will see, most changes are a result of air yards and scrambles for quarterbacks.

2014 final QBR numbers
Marcus Mariota remained No. 1 in Total QBR after the postseason adjustments. His QBR remained relatively unchanged, and he ended the season with a sizable lead over the second-place finisher, J.T. Barrett.

The biggest mover in the top 10 was Michigan State’s Connor Cook. Why? Sixty-three percent of Cook’s passing yards came through the air (rather than after the catch), the highest percentage of any Power 5 quarterback with at least 100 passes. In other words, Cook did not rely on yards after the catch for his passing yards.

Blake Sims fell from second to fifth in QBR for reasons similar to Cook’s rise. Led by Amari Cooper, Alabama gained 54 percent of its passing yards after the catch, the third-highest percentage in the SEC. Sims also benefited from some improbable long plays; he led the SEC with 24 completions of 30 yards or longer, yet six of those completions came on passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage (see Cooper’s 52-yard touchdown against FAU). No other Power 5 player had more 30-yard completions (six) or touchdowns (four) on passes behind the line of scrimmage than Sims.

Barrett replaced Sims as No. 2 in Total QBR. Barrett was helped by his scrambling: a Big Ten-high 315 rush yards (7.3-yard average) and three touchdowns.

Looking beyond the top 10, Clemson’s Cole Stoudt had the largest decrease in Total QBR (-7.8 points) among qualified players after the addition of tracked data. Stoudt’s average pass traveled 6.5 yards past the line of scrimmage, two yards shorter than the Power 5 average (8.7).

Conversely, UNLV’s Blake Decker had the largest increase in Total QBR (+4.8 points). His average pass traveled 10.9 yards past the line of scrimmage, two yards farther than the Power 5 average. He gained 364 of his 366 rush yards on scrambles, and a player generally receives more credit for a scramble than a designed rush in the Total QBR calculation.

Overall, the teams that relied heavily on quick, short screens (Washington State, West Virginia, Texas Tech) were negatively affected by the updated information, and the ones that passed downfield more frequently (Michigan State, Minnesota, Florida) were positively affected.

Though these changes were minor – two players had QBR changes of more than five points – adding the additional information at the end of the season made QBR more accurate by adding information that allows us to isolate the quarterback's effect on each play. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section of this post and we will do our best to answer.

Oregon-Michigan State laden with meaning

September, 1, 2014
Marcus Mariota and Connor CookAP PhotoThe performances of Marcus Mariota, left, and Connor Cook will go a long way in determining the outcome of Saturday's Oregon-Michigan State game.
There will be no "real" Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015. The "real" Rose Bowl, whose purity previously had been diluted by the BCS, is a casualty of the College Football Playoff this season. While that will make many of us old fogies wince, the only constructive response is to embrace change and recognize the fulfillment of decades-long clamoring for a playoff was inevitably going to kill off some cherished institutions with its birth.

As a consolation prize, however, the college football gods have given us No. 8 Michigan State visiting No. 3 Oregon on Saturday. It's a Rose Bowl matchup the first weekend of September, with the (alleged) Big Ten best versus (alleged) Pac-12 best. With Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out for the season and UCLA's less than scintillating performance at Virginia, this one has gained further traction as a potential CFP selection committee barometer for both teams and both conferences.

No, there will be no sunset behind the San Gabriel Mountains at Autzen Stadium, but there likely will be rosy fingers of meaning extending from whatever happens Saturday. For one, an early-season victory over a top-10 team in a nonconference game is exactly what the selection committee claims it will pay homage to. As an optional challenge boldly undertaken outside of the rote bureaucracy of conference scheduling, this game should serve as a badge of honor for teams trying to distinguish themselves to 13 judges in a conference room Dec. 7.

Ah, the committee. We can be fairly certain that, for better or worse, the great "Transitive Property of College Football" will play a role in its deliberations, and that is the perception prize the Spartans and Ducks will battle over in addition to the scoreboard numbers.

If Oregon wins, it will thereby -- transitively -- be better than any team the Spartans beat over the remainder of their season. If Michigan State ends up the Big Ten champion at 12-1, the Ducks will be viewed as the de facto Big Ten champs -- at least if the Ducks do well enough over the rest of their season to merit such an overreaching (overreacting?) designation. This playoff math would be rendered less relevant if Oregon, in this scenario, meanders to a 10-2 finish and fails to win the Pac-12's North Division.

The same goes for Michigan State, perhaps even more so because the rest of its schedule is not as demanding. If the Spartans beat a Ducks team -- in fearsome Autzen Stadium, the Pac-12's toughest road venue, no less -- that goes on to win the ostensibly SEC-ish Pac-12, their bounty could be a defensible claim to the top perch in two Power 5 conferences. That is, of course, if they take care of business over the entire season.

So the function is almost a transference of the Rose Bowl's typical season-ending meaning, just without any of the cool pageantry. A further twist is that both teams after the game become each other's biggest fans, with both winner and loser wanting the other to make the result a more impressive measure of itself.

Not that you'll hear Ducks coach Mark Helfrich or Spartans leader Mark Dantonio celebrating this sort of curlicue thinking. They've got teams with big goals, including playoff goals, but placing this game on such a pedestal could make a loss feel catastrophic within the locker room. Then what about the next 10 or 11 games?

“[This is] game No. 2. We have 10 games after that. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves," Dantonio said. "It’s not an end-all either way. That’s going to be a measuring stick game for us. Where are we at? Who are we? It will give us a little more of a sense of identity early in the season.”

Once you get past going John le Carré on potential selection committee intrigues, the football part of this football game is pretty cool, too. Although the teams share a team color of green, that's pretty much where the commonality ends, and even then, Oregon long ago went ludicrous speed on the notion of team colors and sartorial standards.

Speaking of ludicrous speed, Oregon, you might have heard, plays fast and furious on offense and piles up yards and points like a frenzying school of pirañas. Meanwhile, Michigan State, as you know, plays defense like a thick wall of titanium. Wall? It's more like an impregnable box -- with walls slowly closing together.

Last year, Oregon ranked No. 2 in the nation in total offense (565 yards per game) and No. 4 in scoring offense (45.5 ppg). Michigan State ranked No. 2 in total defense (252.2 ypg) and No. 3 in scoring defense (13.2 ppg). The Spartans also enter the game knowing they beat the Pac-12 team that beat the Ducks, given that they dispatched Stanford 24-20 in the 2014 Rose Bowl.

Of course, an over-reliance on what happened the past season is one of the greatest weaknesses in so-called college football punditry. The first weekend has already shown us that projecting forward based on returning starters and extrapolated improvement is an inexact science. Both Oregon and Michigan State are missing key players from 2013 on both sides of the ball. They also have shiny new players ready to glow.

Still, the circumstantial evidence suggests both teams will lean on their obvious strengths on Saturday. The Ducks and quarterback Marcus Mariota, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, rolled up 673 yards without really trying in an opening win over South Dakota, while Michigan State's defense throttled Jacksonville State 45-7 yielding just 244 yards.

The obvious only goes so far. The game ultimately might swing on the secondary quantities. Spartans quarterback Connor Cook has been surging since the middle of the past year, and he was darn near perfect in the opener and actually earned a perfect rating of 100 in's Total QB Rating. Oregon's defense has long been given short shrift, despite ranking among the nation's leaders and sending numerous players to the NFL.

The sum conclusion is that, while we will go Rose Bowl-less this season, this is a game that has plenty to offer, both in football on Saturday and in potential micro-analyzed meaning as the season progresses.
When Michigan State Spartans athletic director Mark Hollis first told football coach Mark Dantonio about his plan to schedule a home-and-home series with the Oregon Ducks, Dantonio did not wrestle his boss to the ground, scream obscenities or start updating his résumé.

As Hollis recalls, Dantonio simply smirked, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Why not?"

The reasons not to schedule Oregon -- especially at eardrum-splitting Autzen Stadium, where the Spartans go in Week 2 -- of course include the Ducks' tornadic offense, their dominance at home (92-17 since 1997) and the Big Ten's historic struggles in Pac-12 country. So why would Michigan State saddle itself with such a challenging matchup so early in the season?

"I've never really said, 'Oh, no, I don’t want to play those guys,'" Dantonio told "I just feel like, if you're going to be a champion, you have to be willing to take on all comers."

[+] EnlargeMark Hollis
AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State athletic director Mark Hollis has upgraded the football schedule with the College Football Playoff in mind, beginning this season with a road game at Oregon.
The Spartans arrived in the ranks of the elite in January by beating Pac-12 champ Stanford in the Rose Bowl, capping a 12-1 season. Now they get a chance to prove they can stay there with another trip to the West Coast on Sept. 6. This early-season showdown of conference heavyweights -- Oregon is ranked No. 4 in the ESPN preseason power rankings; Michigan State is No. 7 -- carries key implications for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

"If we play well in that game, it can definitely bounce us up to the four-team playoff," Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun said.

The playoff was exactly what Hollis had in mind when he added Oregon to the schedule in March 2012. He also signed future home-and-home deals around the same time with Miami (Fla.) and Alabama, the latter of which has since been canceled. Hollis said arranging the Oregon series was made easier by his close relationship with Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens; the two became friendly when Mullens was at Kentucky and the Spartans and Wildcats put together a basketball series.

"We don't want to be stupid in our scheduling, but at the same time, we were anticipating the playoff system and anticipating the strength-of-schedule [component]," Hollis told "As we were having these conversations, it seemed right, it fit right. They're a top-five program, and with us coming off a Rose Bowl championship, kind of by freak of luck this turned into a pretty nice game."

(The fact that both schools are Nike-sponsored and wear green doesn't hurt, either. "It's always nice to see Phil [Knight]," Hollis joked, "even though I'm sure he'll be on the other sideline.")

Michigan State sees little downside to the game. Even if the Spartans lose in Eugene, as long as they are reasonably competitive, they would have plenty of time to rebound and still win a Big Ten title. They recall last year, when they lost at Notre Dame but went on to capture their final 10 games and finish No. 3 in the polls.

"It’s not an end-all either way," Dantonio said. "It’s going to be a measuring stick for us -- where are we at, what do we have to do, who are we? It will give us a little more of a sense of identity early in season."

The on-field matchup itself is incredibly intriguing.

Oregon, with its fast-paced, no-huddle spread offense, leads the nation in scoring the past four seasons combined at 47 points per game. In that same time span, Michigan State's ferocious defense ranks fourth in the FBS in points allowed and third in yards allowed. The Spartans finished No. 2 in total defense in 2013; the Ducks were No. 2 in total offense.

Michigan State has fielded a top-10 defense in each of the past three years, but it is replacing six key starters from last year's unit.

"This should give us an early indication of how things can go for us, if our team is tight-knit or if we have loose ends," Calhoun said. "It will be nice to see how they play and see if we match up with them."

The wise guys say it will be difficult, as Michigan State opened as nearly a two-touchdown underdog in the betting lines. That's not much respect for a defending Rose Bowl champ.

"We’re used to it," Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. "We were underdogs last year against Ohio State and against Stanford. So we're used to playing with a chip on our shoulders, and we're not going to let that affect us."

Regardless of the outcome, the game should provide significant national buzz for the Spartans, as well as heavy local interest. Hollis said the school received more than 8,000 requests for its 3,000-ticket allotment to the game. Oregon's return visit to East Lansing on Sept. 12, 2015, will be a scalper's dream.

"For the general fan, it's one of those games that, no matter who you cheer for, this is one you want to watch," Hollis said.

Dantonio will make sure his team doesn't put too much focus on this one game, as Michigan State must first deal with its opener on Aug. 29 against Jacksonville State, not to mention the 10 regular-season contests after Oregon. But it's impossible to ignore the magnitude of what awaits in Week 2.

"It's been in the back of our minds all offseason," Cook said. "If we win, it will be a statement game that can turn a lot of heads, and it could put us on the way to a national championship."

Mailbag: Mariota, Zumwalt & math

January, 10, 2014
Welcome to the mailbag. Can't wait for games … this week … er … drat.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes!

James from In the swamp lands of the Oregon Coast writes: Riddle me this, Ted. 20 of 35, 237 yards, 2 TDs, 1 lost fumble. 20 of 34, 250 yards, 2 TDs, 1 lost fumble. One statline knocked a man out of the Heisman Race, the other was an MVP statline for the 2014 BCS national championship game. I get that Winston was on the winning side of the BCSNCG, but somehow his stats are MVP caliber just because he was on the winning team? I'm not an insider to the sports media thought process, help me out in understanding the thinking here.

Ted Miller: It is interesting that you correctly note that Florida State QB Jameis Winston's numbers in the BCS national title game are comparable to Oregon QB Marcus Mariota's numbers in the Ducks' loss to Stanford.

And I was on-board with criticizing how quickly Mariota fell out of the Heisman Trophy race after the Stanford loss, at least until the Ducks fell flat at Arizona.

But, really, do I have to explain this?

  1. After a really, really slow start, Winston showed mental toughness on a big stage and helped his team overcome an 18-point second-quarter deficit to win the national title.
  2. Winston threw both of his touchdown passes in the fourth quarter (so did Mariota, but his circumstances were pretty hopeless).
  3. Winston was 6-for-7 for 77 yards on the game-winning 80-yard drive, including a 2-yard TD pass for the winning points with 13 seconds remaining.
It's also notable that Winston's heroics ended the SEC's seven-year national championship winning streak.

Context matters. Winning matters. And epic game-winning drives that will become permanent parts of college football lore matter.

[+] EnlargeHenry Anderson
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsStanford LB Shayne Skov was part of Ted Miller's Pac-12 all-bowl team.
Robin from Irvine, Calif., writes: How did Jordan Zumwalt not make your All-Pac12 Bowl list? Did you watch the game? I mean this is a legitimate query, not a flame.I enjoy your writing and opinions (most of the time).

Ted Miller: Yes, I watched the Hyundai Sun Bowl. Zumwalt played really well.

Zumwalt shared game MVP honors with QB Brett Hundley in UCLA's 42-12 win over Virginia Tech. He finished with 10 tackles, a 43-yard interception return and the knockout hit on Hokies QB Logan Thomas. He obviously impressed Ivan Maisel, who put him on's All-Bowl team.

First off, here are the linebackers who I put on the Pac-12 blog's All-Bowl team.

LB Shayne Skov, Stanford: Skov had nine tackles, three tackles for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble in Stanford's 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl.

LB Jake Fischer, Arizona: Fischer had a game-high 14 tackles in the Wildcats' win over Boston College. He also had a sack and 1.5 tackles for a loss. Arizona held Doak Walker Award winner Andre Williams to only 75 yards on 26 carries.

LB John Timu, Washington: Timu had a game-high 14 tackles, a sack and an interception in the Huskies' win over BYU.

LB Jabral Johnson, Oregon State: Johnson had a game-high 12 tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry in the Beavers' win over Boise State.

I had Zumwalt on my list, but I don't think his numbers are clearly better than the four I selected. In fact, UCLA LB Myles Jack (five tackle, two tackles for a loss, a sack, an interception returned 24 yards and a QB hurry) might have had as strong a case as Zumwalt. Further, Virginia Tech has a woeful offense, one that then was forced to play without its starting QB the entire second half.

And that last part, at the risk of making defensive Bruins fans mad at me, played a role in Zumwalt not making my team. I don't give Zumwalt extra points for knocking the opposing QB out of the game. And, yes, I think it was a dirty hit, even though many believe otherwise

Did it play a part in my thinking that Zumwalt has a reputation as a dirty player? Maybe. Probably.

To those who insist it wasn't a dirty hit, including CBS color man Gary Danielson, I would simply counter with two questions: 1. Has any coach in the history of football taught a player to tackle like Zumwalt hit Thomas? 2. Would you feel the hit was clean if Virginia Tech defensive tackle Luther Maddy had knocked Hundley out of the game in the second quarter with the same technique -- and then Hundley a week later cited injury concerns as his reason for entering the NFL draft?

Eric from Seattle writes: I have a question about the new College Football Playoff. One of the semifinal games is scheduled for 1/1/15 at the Rose Bowl. If the Pac-12 winner (or B1G winner, for that matter) is not one of the semifinal teams, what does that mean for the Pac-12 winner and their Rose Bowl berth?

Ted Miller: In the new four-team playoff, the Rose Bowl will be a semifinal host next Jan. 1, so it's unlikely it will end up with a traditional Pac-12-Big Ten matchup. That will be the case every three years as the playoff rotates among the six major bowls.

The bad news is the further erosion of one of college football's great traditions, though years the Rose Bowl doesn't host a semifinal it typically will go with the traditional conference matchup.

The good news, if you're a half-full sort, is the Pac-12 champion -- or eligible runner-up if the champion is in the playoff -- will have a greater chance for a diverse postseason destination, such as the Fiesta, Orange, Cotton and Chick-fil-A bowls

Tony Barnhart has a nice primer on the new format here.

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsWashington State could have run off more time in the closing minutes of the New Mexico Bowl.
Dan from Spokane writes: You must have flunked arithmetic. You say 1:55 left in the [New Mexico Bowl between Washington State and Colorado State], and 20 seconds on the play clock with second-and-10. 115 seconds -15, -40 and -40 = 15 seconds left. You can't just take a knee. You might want to take a knee on writing about simple math or clock management.

Ted Miller: I expected someone to write in and do pure subtraction and say, "See! There would have been time left! Dummy!"

But, Dan, this isn't a straight subtraction issue. For one, there's the fudge factor for one of Washington State's QBs taking a few steps back before taking a knee, therefore burning three to five more seconds while risking nothing.

Here's a good explanation of how the Cougars could have run out the clock, a process that should have started on first down, not second.

Dan, I know you are trying to fight back for your team -- the ol' "My team wrong or right!" deal. But this isn't a debate. It's a pointing out of something that was strategically wrong.

John from Cincinnati writes: Hey Teddy, nice pre-Rose Bowl analysis on why Stanford was going to whip MSU. The final result of the game demonstrates the futility of superficial analysis. You failed to dig into the contexts of the points of your argument. For example, you did not consider the trajectory of MSU QB Cook when comparing him to Hogan. You just considered the core stats and did not dig under the sheets. This is what happens when one already is predisposed and is gravely biased. Nice work.

Ted Miller: This is obviously not a new note, but I got several of these from Michigan State fans. I've been doing this long enough to understand that this is something a subset of fans love to do: After-the-fact gloating about pregame analysis that proves mostly or entirely incorrect.

Further, I realize the futility of providing a defense. But my hope in doing so quickly here is that perhaps I will reach, oh, 10 percent of the folks who react this way so they can understand the basics of the sportswriting enterprise.

It was an assigned story that each conference insider did for his or her conference's BCS bowl games. Here's Adam Rittenberg's 10 reasons for Michigan State, even though he picked Stanford to win. Lookie here -- 10 reasons Alabama will win the Sugar Bowl. And 10 reasons Oklahoma will win the Sugar Bowl.

But what was noteworthy about this note was John's quibble with my first point:

  1. Stanford has the better quarterback: Stanford QB Kevin Hogan is 15th in the nation in total QBR (80.2). Michigan State's Connor Cook is 59th (61.9). And Hogan put up those numbers against a much tougher schedule.

John notes my "superficial analysis." Then types, "you did not consider the trajectory of MSU QB Cook when comparing him to Hogan."

First off, I'm not sure how noting that Hogan had a superior season based on his efficiency rating against a much tougher schedule is "superficial." But let's go ahead and look at the "trajectory" of Hogan and Cook at season's end.

Hogan's opponent adjusted QBR in his last three games before the Rose Bowl was 98.0 (California), 61.2 (Notre Dame) and 96.7 (Arizona State). Cook's opponent adjusted QBR in his last three before the Rose Bowl was: 92.3 (Northwestern), 27.1 (Minnesota) and 83.9 (Ohio State).

So, Hogan had superior numbers in each of the three games leading up to the Rose Bowl.

Ergo, we pull up the sheets and find … statistics, not "gravely biased" analysis.
ESPN Stats & Information reviewed Michigan State's 24-20 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO and came up with some interesting numbers, starting with one that made the Pac-12 blog wrong again on something this bowl season.

In our 10 reasons that Sanford was going to, cough, cough, win the Rose Bowl, our No. 1 reason was that Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan being better than his Spartans counterpart Connor Cook. It didn't play out like that in the game, with Cook passing for a career-high 332 yards with two touchdowns, while Hogan passed for 143 yards with no scores.

The difference was downfield throws, something Stanford needed to hit against a Spartans defense that stacks the box against the run.

Cook completed 6 of 11 passes thrown 15 yards or longer for 152 yards and a touchdown. His six such completions were a career high. Stanford QB Kevin Hogan completed 2 of 7 passes thrown 15 yards or longer, tied for his most such incompletions in a game this season.

Telling fact: In Stanford’s last two losses, Hogan is a combined 3-for-12 on passes thrown 15 yards or longer with no touchdowns and an interception.

Without a consistent downfield threat, the Cardinal rushing attack struggled after the first quarter.

Stanford rushed for 162 yards, its second fewest in a game this season behind the 143 yards it had in the loss at Utah. The Cardinal started the game strong with 91 rushing yards in the first quarter, but managed just 71 in the final three quarters. Their 10 rushes in the game that lost yards were their most in a game since they had 10 on Nov. 8, 2008, in a loss at Oregon. They only gained 45 yards on 21 rushes inside the tackles.

Running back Tyler Gaffney had 68 rushing yards on his first five carries, including a 47-yard run in the first quarter. He finished the game with 23 rushing yards on his final 19 carries, including seven rushes that lost yards. Overall, he was first contacted in the backfield a season-high nine times, four more than his previous season-high set in the Pac-12 championship game against Arizona State.

That's a big reason why the Cardinal’s average distance to go on third down was a season-high 10.2 yards. They entered the game with an FBS-best 5.2 yards to go average on third down.

In other words, the Spartans highly-rated defense was highly-rated for a reason. It clearly won the battle with the Stanford offense.

PASADENA, Calif. -- Michigan State rallied from an early 10-point deficit to dominate the final three quarters against Stanford in the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

Here's a quick recap of the Spartans' victory.

It was over when: Middle linebacker Kyler Elsworth, replacing the suspended Max Bullough, stuffed Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt (along with help from Shilique Calhoun and others) on fourth and-1 with 1:34 left and the ball at Stanford's 34-yard line. Stanford had used its final timeout, so Michigan State ran out the clock.

Game ball goes to: MSU quarterback Connor Cook. He had several heart-stopping throws, including one of the worst pick-sixes you'll ever see in the second quarter. But Cook once again didn't let a mistake faze him, and he displayed his tremendous skill in attacking Stanford's secondary. He recorded his second consecutive career-high passing performance (332 yards) on his second mega stage, completing 22 of 36 attempts with two touchdowns. His first two career 300-yard passing performances come in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl. Not too shabby.

Stat of the game: Stanford recorded a 43-yard pass to Michael Rector on the game's second play from scrimmage and a 47-yard Tyler Gaffney rush late in the first quarter. The Cardinal had a 51-yard pass play in the third quarter. Those three plays accounted for 141 of Stanford's 305 total yards. The Cardinal ran only nine plays for 23 yards in the second quarter, excluding a kneel-down on the final play of the half.

Stat of the game II: Michigan State became the first team to rally from a halftime deficit to win a Rose Bowl since the 2000 game, when Wisconsin erased a 9-3 Stanford lead and won 17-9 behind Ron Dayne.

What Stanford learned: The Cardinal still struggle to beat teams that can match them physically, especially up front. All those big linemen and creative formations didn't make much difference against a swarming Michigan State defense that surrendered only 11 first downs and 305 yards (mostly on three plays). Stanford learned that it wasn't a true national title contender, losing three games to teams that mirrored its style of play. And while David Shaw remains an elite coach, his conservative play calls seemed to cost his team down the stretch.

What Michigan State learned: The Spartans are an elite program led by an elite coach in Mark Dantonio and an elite staff. They have an elite quarterback in Cook. They can overcome the loss of an elite player in Bullough. Michigan State learned it can play on the biggest stages with the best teams in the country and beat them with power football. The Spartans never went off track, even after a shaky start, and made enough plays in all three phases to record one of the biggest wins in program history.

Rose Bowl predictions

January, 1, 2014
Both Kevin and Ted correctly picked Arizona and UCLA to win Tuesday. Kevin is 81-19 on the season, and Ted is 77-23.

Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio

Kevin Gemmell: To me, the important factor in this game is experience and strength of schedule. Stanford has both on its side. The Cardinal have played the tougher schedule and are more than battle-tested coming into this game. They also have the experience of playing in a fourth-straight BCS bowl game, and that experience is invaluable in a grand-stage game like the Rose Bowl. Furthermore, the Cardinal haven’t had any player distractions like Michigan State has. I see this one playing out a lot like last year’s game. The Cardinal will get a lead and then hold on down the stretch. It’s what they do. And they are as good as any team in the country at doing it. Stanford 28, Michigan State 21.

Ted Miller: The first big question is how the loss of star LB Max Bullough to a suspension affects Michigan State's dominant defense. More than a few folks think it will be a significant blow. Imagine if Stanford lost Shayne Skov. The second question is which team can achieve balance, rushing and passing effectively, against a great opposing defense. It seems Stanford has an advantage at quarterback with Kevin Hogan over Connor Cook. I also think the Stanford offensive line is substantially better than any line the Spartans have faced. I do see this being a four-quarter game, but the Cardinal will prevail. Stanford 24, Michigan State 20.

10 reasons Stanford wins the Rose Bowl

January, 1, 2014
Why is Stanford going to best Michigan State in the Rose Bowl Presented by Vizio? Here are 10 reasons.

  1. Stanford has the better quarterback: Stanford QB Kevin Hogan is 15th in the nation in total QBR (80.2). Michigan State's Connor Cook is 59th (61.9). And Hogan put up those numbers against a much tougher schedule.
  2. [+] EnlargeTrent Murphy
    Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesMichigan State hasn't faced a pass rusher as talented or relentless as Stanford LB Trent Murphy.
  3. Michigan State hasn't faced a pass rusher like Trent Murphy: The Spartans only yielded 13 sacks this year, which ranked 11th in the nation. But Michigan State didn't face any pass rusher as good as Murphy -- none ranked in the nation's top 15. Murphy had 14 sacks on his own, which ranked second in the nation.
  4. Stanford has played in four consecutive BCS bowls: The Cardinal are accustomed to a big stage. This is their second consecutive Rose Bowl and fourth consecutive BCS bowl. Michigan State hasn't played in a BCS bowl game or a Rose Bowl in 26 years. Experience matters. Nerves certainly won't be an issue for Stanford.
  5. The Pac-12 is better than the Big Ten: The Pac-12 went 3-2 versus the Big Ten this year, and was widely viewed as -- at least -- the nation's second best conference behind the SEC. Playing a nine-game Pac-12 schedule means Stanford has been more battle tested against A-list foes.
  6. Michigan State doesn't have its top leader on defense: Michigan State might have the nation's best defense, and All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough is its unquestioned leader. But Bullough was suspended for undisclosed reasons and won't play in the Rose Bowl. That leaves a huge hole in the Spartans defense in terms of talent, experience and leadership.
  7. Michigan State hasn't faced an O-line as good as Stanford's: The Spartans own the nation's No. 1 rush defense, but it hasn't faced an offensive line as big and bad -- and NFL ready -- as Stanford's. Ohio State has a good offensive line, and it produced 273 rushing yards against the Spartans in the Big Ten championship game.
  8. The transitive property! Notre Dame beat Michigan State 17-13. Stanford beat Notre Dame 27-20. So Stanford beats Michigan State! While it should be noted that Notre Dame was at home and far more healthy against the Spartans than it was at Stanford, this is a 10-point list, and sometimes you cut corners.
  9. Shayne Skov will deliver an inspiring pre-game speech: Skov is a great player, but a nearly as important contribution to the Cardinal is his fiery leadership. He is the Cardinal's designated player for an emotional pregame speech. As a fifth-year senior, this will be his last. Count on it being highly motivating.
  10. David Shaw is an elite coach: There's a reason you keep hearing Shaw's name come up in discussions about coaching vacancies, whether at Texas or in the NFL. He's considered an elite coach who has yet to reach his ceiling. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio might well be headed in that same direction, but you'd have to give Shaw and Stanford the edge on the sidelines.
  11. The Big Ten doesn't win Rose Bowls: Since the 2000 season, Big Ten teams have gone 1-9 in the Rose Bowl. While there were a couple of guest appearances in the Pac-12's spot -- Texas, TCU -- the Big Ten's biggest problem is the Pac-12 -- Washington, USC, Oregon and Stanford. The Big Ten's last Rose Bowl win was Ohio State over Oregon following the 2009 season, and that required Buckeyes QB Terrelle Pryor playing the best game of his career.

Expect 100th Rose Bowl to be physical

December, 31, 2013
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.

[+] EnlargeStanford
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsShayne Skov and Stanford face in some ways a mirror image in Michigan State.
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'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."

Even at the top, Mason still scrapping

December, 31, 2013

Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason played cornerback at Northern Arizona, and he'd rate as short for the position even at an FCS school. He's compact and powerfully built, but you'd suspect that more than a few receivers took one look at his 5-foot-8 frame and thought, "I am going to steal his lunch money and send him home to his mommy in tears."

Some of those guys got the best of him, no doubt. The Lumberjacks never posted a winning record while Mason, a two-year starter, was on the team. But Mason made sure their afternoon wasn't easy, and that they'd remember him the next morning when they crawled out of bed and needed an aspirin or four.

"I felt like I was tough. I felt like I was physical. I felt like I competed all the time," he said. "I felt like because of my size I played [with] a big chip on my shoulder, mad all the time, mad at everybody. Mad at receivers, tight ends. So I played angry."

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesDefensive coordinator Derek Mason has helped Stanford become one of the top defenses in the nation by, as his players say, doing a "tremendous job of explaining what we do and why we're doing it."
Mason's description of himself as a player surely will make those around the Stanford program smile, particularly those who play defense for him. Mason, 43, is a ball of compressed energy, a demanding guy who sees the entire field in a way that allows him to rapidly process both imperfections that mattered on a specific play and imperfections that didn't matter but might next time. He's not the sort who lets things slide, even when the ultimate result suggests proper execution to the casual observer.

"I think the best thing he does is he helps us stay motivated to show up every day for work," Cardinal All-American outside linebacker Trent Murphy said. "He never lets us get complacent or lets us get content. Some of our best games, as far as score-wise, our win margin, some of those games he gets furious. You would think we lost the game by the way he rips us apart after the game. He's always hungry and keeps us hungry, calls great plays and puts us in a great position to be successful, so you can't ask for anything more from a coach."

The ability to scheme, motivate and teach has made Mason into one of the nation's hottest defensive coordinators, yet his route to success at Stanford has been twisting. This is his 10th coaching stop since 1994. Stanford is the first time he has coached four consecutive seasons in the same place. With five of those coaching jobs, Mason was on the offensive side of the ball. A wide receivers coach at Ohio in 2005 and 2006, he jumped to the Minnesota Vikings to become an assistant defensive backs coach. It looked like the NFL was his future, but then Jim Harbaugh came calling in 2010.

"Anybody who has been around Jim Harbaugh knows he can sell anything," Mason said.

It proved an inspired decision to come West with Harbaugh, who had just hired Vic Fangio to switch Stanford from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. Mason preferred a 3-4 himself -- the Vikings were using a 4-3 -- and Fangio helped him earn his Ph.D. in the scheme.

Of course, Stanford would go 12-1 that season, blowing out Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and Harbaugh and Fangio would jump to the San Francisco 49ers. When David Shaw was promoted to head coach, he made Mason co-coordinator with Jason Tarver in 2011.

When Tarver left of the Oakland Raiders, Mason took sole control of the defense in 2012. It was Mason who solved Stanford's "Oregon Problem," not Fangio or Tarver. In 2010 and 2011, Stanford surrendered 105 points in losses to the Ducks. In 2012 and 2013, the Cardinal yielded 34 in victories.

"I think the sign of any good football coach at any position is the ability to have a philosophy and have a general scheme that you believe in," Shaw said. "But more importantly, to be able to teach that scheme and then fit the scheme around the players that you have and their talents. I think Derek has done that, and you've seen him do things for Shayne Skov, you've seen him do things for Trent Murphy, do things for Chase Thomas, do things to help Ed Reynolds shine. You put guys in positions to do things that they're good at."

Said Skov: "He does a tremendous job of explaining what we do and why we're doing it."

Stanford has led the Pac-12 in both scoring and rushing defense the past two seasons. Its 97 sacks over the past two seasons is five more than any other conference team. The Cardinal have held opponents to 20 or fewer points in 20 of their last 25 games, and have not allowed a foe to reach 30 points in their past 21 games. Rose Bowl foe Michigan State is the only team with a longer streak (26).

Mason's defense has a massive inventory -- at least for a college team -- of fronts, stunts and blitzes that makes it difficult for offenses to know what they are getting before the snap. The Cardinal's defense is big, athletic and physical at all three levels, but Mason's scheme also takes advantage of the intellect of football recruits who can get into Stanford. They simply can handle more information than a collection of players at just about every other FBS school. Michigan State's offensive players repeatedly talked about how Stanford's defense thrives on keeping opponents off-balance.

"They do a great job of trying to confuse the offense," Spartans quarterback Connor Cook said. "They do a lot of different fronts and a lot of movements and stuff like that to try and confuse you."

Seven years ago, Mason was a receivers coach at Ohio. Now he's one of the top defensive coordinators in the country.

The reason he jumped from point A to point B probably has a lot to do with him coaching the same way he played cornerback at Northern Arizona. He still sees that 6-4 receiver grinning at him, thinking he's about to grab some extra lunch money.

"I absolutely coach with a chip on my shoulder," Mason said. "I want these guys to be the best. There's not a day that goes by that my head hits the pillow that I'm not thinking of how we can get better, how these guys can get better, because that's what they came here to do."

Bowl primer: Rose Bowl

December, 20, 2013
We continue our look at each of the Pac-12’s opponents during the bowl season.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio
Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 1, 2 p.m. PT, ESPN
Stanford (11-2) vs. Michigan State (12-1)

Michigan State Spartans

Coach: Mark Dantonio (seventh season)
Record: 12-1, 8-0 Big Ten
Combined opponent’s record: 77-80 (.490)
Common opponents: Notre Dame handed Michigan State its only loss of the year, a 17-13 defeat in September. Stanford beat the Irish 27-20 in its regular season finale.
Leading passer: Connor Cook, 201-344 (58.4 percent) for 2,423 yards with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Leading rusher: Jeremy Langford, 269-1,338 with 17 touchdowns.
Leading receiver: Bennie Fowler, 34-525 with six touchdowns.
Leading tackler: Denicos Allen, 91 tackles (15 tackles for a loss).

What to know: The Spartans enter the Rose Bowl riding a nine-game winning streak that includes a convincing win over then-No. 21 Michigan and one of the biggest upsets of the season in their 34-24 win over then-No. 2 Ohio State. The win over the Buckeyes in the Big Ten championship game snapped OSU’s streak of 24 straight wins and threw all sorts of wrenches into the BCS standings.

Michigan State is relatively healthy heading into Pasadena with little more than the run of the mill bumps and bruises.

For obvious reasons, this game is being billed as a clash of defensive titans. And it is. Michigan State has the No. 1 rush defense in the nation. Stanford is No. 3. Michigan State has the No. 4 scoring defense. Stanford is 10th. One team has a 1,300-yard rusher. The other a 1,600-yard rusher. Both value disciplined, physical line play with an emphasis on field position, ball control and ball security.

Plenty more will be written about this game from both the Pac-12 and Big Ten blogs, but the takeaway you’re going to hear is defense, defense, defense.

One thing to note offensively for the Spartans, per Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg, is that their wide receiving corps has improved significantly this year in reducing the number of drops. That’s helped contribute to a plus-14 turnover margin -- which is tied for seventh nationally.

Key matchup: This is the kind of game that should make Stanford head coach David Shaw all giddy. Line up one of the best offensive lines in the country against one of the best front sevens and have at it. Allen is the leader. You recall his stop on OSU’s Braxton Miller on fourth down in the conference title game, but he’s got an outstanding supporting cast around him. Both teams will try to establish a rushing attack. As far as line play goes, this one should be the highlight of the entire bowl season.