PASADENA, Calif. — When Kyler Elsworth soared over the pile to deliver the final hit of Michigan State’s season, the storybook ending came with a moral.
After so many years outside the spotlight, the Spartans are in nobody’s shadow anymore.
For the first time in 26 years, they’re Rose Bowl champions.
Hinckley Township native Connor Cook passed for a career-high 332 yards and hit Tony Lippett with a tiebreaking 25-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, leading No. 4 Michigan State to a 24-20 victory over No. 5 Stanford on Wednesday night in the 100th Rose Bowl.
Michigan State’s FBS-best defense capped a dominant season with one more old-school performance befitting the centennial celebration of the Granddaddy of Them All. The Spartans (13-1) yielded just 159 yards in the final three quarters, and they closed it out by stopping Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt on fourth-and-1 near midfield with 1:46 to play.
Elsworth, the fill-in starter for suspended senior linebacker Max Bullough, hurdled the pile and flew into Michigan State lore with a spectacular head-on tackle.
“When I saw their offensive linemen’s stance, I knew the way to make a play was to go over the top,” said Elsworth, the game’s defensive MVP. “I was hoping they would run a play like they did on their fourth down. It’s a one-in-a-lifetime play. We proved we could play on the big stage on the national level.”
Cook also threw a TD pass to Trevon Pendleton, and Jeremy Langford rushed for 84 yards and a score as the Big Ten champion Spartans overcame their first double-digit deficit of the entire season. Michigan State finished with 10 straight wins, holding off the Pac-12 champion Cardinal (11-3) for the school’s first Rose Bowl victory since 1988.
“It’s a special time for all Spartans, and we came here in force,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “I’m very happy for our football team, the resilience we showed all season long.”
The Spartans have long labored behind Michigan, Ohio State and even Wisconsin among the Midwest’s top programs, but Dantonio’s seven-year rebuilding project in East Lansing has put them on top of the Midwest this season with a perfect run through conference play.
Tyler Gaffney ran for 91 yards and an early TD for Stanford, and linebacker Kevin Anderson returned an interception 40 yards for a score late in the first half. But the Cardinal couldn’t follow up last season’s success in Pasadena with back-to-back Rose Bowl wins, managing just three points from their offense after the first quarter.
And Gaffney could only watch as Hewitt was stopped on Stanford’s final play.
“You have to give it to Michigan State for stuffing that,” said Gaffney, who managed just 24 yards after the first quarter. “Everybody in the building knew exactly what was coming. A run was coming up the middle, and it was a test of wills, and they got the better of us.”
Cook led in his own inimitable fashion, making incredible plays and huge mistakes along the way. Along with his costly interception to Anderson, he also threw two passes that went through the hands of Cardinal defenders, and an interception in the third quarter was wiped out by a defensive holding call.
But when the Spartans needed big plays in the second half, Cook repeatedly delivered, finishing 22 for 36.
“When we got down, guys were always helping each other,” Cook said. “We’re such a balanced team.”
A mere 112 years after the game considered the first Rose Bowl was played in a park elsewhere in Pasadena, Stanford and Michigan State engaged in an old-fashioned slugfest in the venerable stadium that will host the BCS title game Monday night.
Michigan State fans dominated the Rose Bowl grounds and stands, with about 70 percent wearing green in the crowd of 95,173 — the game’s largest turnout since 1998.
After Tournament of Roses Parade grand marshal Vin Scully flipped the coin, Stanford started with a 77-yard drive culminating in Gaffney’s 16-yard TD run. A field goal put Stanford up 10-0 late in the first quarter, but the Spartans finally connected with a 13-play drive for Langford’s TD.
Cook handed seven points to the Cardinal shortly before halftime. With Usua Amanam bearing down on him unblocked, Cook inexplicably threw a soft looping pass directly to Anderson, who returned his first career interception untouched for a score — the first defensive touchdown allowed by Michigan State all season.
Cook responded with a stellar drive in the waning minutes, moving Michigan State 75 yards in 99 seconds and evading pursuit to deliver Pendleton’s 2-yard TD catch 28 seconds before halftime.
After Cook connected down the middle with Lippett for the go-ahead score, Stanford stalled and kicked a field goal with 5:05 left.
Bullough was on his teammates’ minds, and his number was written on a towel by linebacker Taiwan Jones. But Elsworth capably handled Bullough’s work before making the play of his life on that final tackle.
While the sideline roared and the stands rocked, even the stone-faced Dantonio celebrated.
“I get a little excited at the Rose Bowl,” Dantonio said.