LOS ANGELES — The day is here, and the thousands who have made it look like an ongoing St. Patrick’s Day celebration in this area will converge on Pasadena, Calif., to watch their favorite team play on the grandest stage in college football.
Michigan State’s fifth Rose Bowl team, its highest-ranked team since the 1960s, its winningest team ever, will try to complete an astounding run by beating No. 5 Stanford (11-2) in the 100th edition of the game on Wednesday.
The No. 4 Spartans (12-1) will play for the fans who have been waiting 26 years to return to Pasadena. They’ll play for the Spartans who preceded them and never got this opportunity; and for those who took part in the wins in 1954, 1956 and 1988; and for those who suffered the one loss in 1966 — Gene Washington and Clinton Jones, key members of perhaps MSU’s best-ever team, have been hanging around all week.
They’ll play for Mark Dantonio and the most successful coaching staff in East Lansing since the Biggie Munn-Duffy Daugherty dynasty. And they’ll play for the seniors, such as a certain linebacker who has helped will MSU back to national relevance in the past four seasons. His name is Denicos Allen.
“This game isn’t just for us or the program, it’s for the players who came so close but didn’t make it before us,” said Allen, whose fourth-down stop of Ohio State’s Braxton Miller was the crucial play in MSU’s Big Ten title game win. “And for the players after us, setting standards for this program now.
“That this is where we should be — not the Buffalo Wild Wings bowl or nothing like that. This is the caliber of team we have and the caliber of teams we should be playing against. This is a game for the future and the past.”
Another senior linebacker, Kyler Elsworth, will get his first career start in place of the senior linebacker whose shocking final chapter has stolen many of the headlines this week. Team captain, All-America, Academic All-American and MSU legacy Max Bullough is suspended for his final game for an unspecified violation of team rules.
MSU officials have stayed mum on the cause of the suspension, announced by press release shortly after midnight Dec. 26, but it has changed the prevailing question about the Spartans’ mind-set.
Before Bullough’s suspension it was: Are the Spartans just happy to be here?
Now it is: Does Bullough’s absence galvanize or demoralize them?
Several MSU players have said this game is for Bullough. Sophomore center Jack Allen said of the situation: “It doesn’t matter — we’ve got to win this game.”
Even if the mental approach is in order, the Spartans figure to miss Bullough’s leadership, pre-snap communication and physicality.
“He’s the heart and soul of the defense,” Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt said of Bullough. “I think it’ll be a tough loss for them. But at the same time it’ll probably be something that kind of fuels them. Ã¢â¬Â¦ There will be a guy that steps up. Ã¢â¬Â¦ It’s the Rose Bowl.”
And an incredible opportunity for MSU, in its first top-5 matchup since No. 1 Notre Dame and the No. 2 Spartans tied, 10-10, in the 1966 “Game of the Century.” If these Spartans win, they’ll finish with the first top-5 ranking since that team.
They would also help bring credibility to the Big Ten, which has had a perception issue of late and has lost nine of its past 10 Rose Bowls.
“We’re going to play our game, and we’re going to play for Michigan State, and we’re going to represent the Big Ten Conference in that aspect,” Dantonio said. “But in the end it’s going to be Michigan State’s deal. Ã¢â¬Â¦ We’re going to have to stand alone on that one — what we do.”
If they do what they’ve been doing since the season turned sharply in October, a 13th victory should be attainable.
“It’s our destiny to be here, and we’re here,” Allen said. “So there ain’t no point in just showing up. We better win. No point going to the Rose Bowl if you don’t plan on winning.”