PASADENA, Calif. Joe Rexrode, (Detroit Free Press) - For the fifth time since Michigan State started playing football in 1896, one of its teams got a chance to play in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, in the most coveted destination in the sport.
For the fourth time, the Spartans left as Rose Bowl champions.
Twice facing their biggest deficit of the season in their first top-5 matchup since 1966, playing without the quarterback of their defense, they rode the quarterback of their offense and an incredible showing of fan support to a 24-20 win over the Stanford Cardinal in the 100th edition of the game.
Roughly 60,000 of the 95,173 fans in the stadium were wearing green, and they roared in approval as sophomore quarterback Connor Cook overcame a pick for a touchdown to throw for a career-high 332 yards - including the winning 25-yard scoring pass to Tony Lippett.
The Spartans add one to their school record for victories to finish 13-1, and they will finish in the top 5 in the rankings for the first time since after that 1966 season and the "Game of the Century" tie between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 MSU.
They did it even though senior middle linebacker and captain Max Bullough was suspended for his final game for an unspecified violation of team rules. Senior Kyler Elsworth did most of the work in his place and sophomore Darien Harris contributed, and that MSU defense got the fourth-quarter stop it needed to seal the game.
It was Elsworth over the top, with a lot of help from his teammates, to stuff fullback Ryan Hewitt on fourth-and-1 from the Stanford 34 with 1:45 left. After a review to confirm the stop, the MSU sideline and the green throng in the stands celebrated wildly.
The Spartans poured onto the field after another gigantic victory, which ended with senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell taking the final snap.
The energy in the stadium was so intense and pro-Michigan State early, loud roars accompanied MSU winning the opening coin toss. But it wouldn't take long for this game to look like the early stages of the Big Ten championship game - when the Spartans, on a familiar stage, jumped all over the first-time Buckeyes.
Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan victimized MSU cornerback Trae Waynes with a 43-yard bomb on the second play from scrimmage. That quieted the MSU crowd, and those in red got loud five plays later as Tyler Gaffney bounced off Isaiah Lewis and scored on a 16-yard run.
Later in the first quarter, Gaffney found room again, going right for 47 yards. Then it looked like the Spartans would regain some momentum when Denicos Allen knocked the ball from Hogan's hands on a run. But Tyler Hoover and Lewis could not pounce on the ball, and the Cardinal ended up in field-goal range at the MSU 23.
Stanford had to settle for a 34-yard field goal from Jordan Williamson. The 10-0 deficit was MSU's largest of the season.
The Spartans responded, of course, though some luck was required. Stanford's Kevin Anderson dropped an interception and it landed in Macgarrett Kings' hands for a first down. Cook then hit Trevon Pendleton for a key 19-yard gain on a third-and-6, and Langford finished a 75-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.
Momentum was changing, and it was still 10-7 Cardinal late in the second quarter when a Cook mistake changed it back. He tried to loft a screen to Langford under duress, and Anderson did not drop this one - he grabbed it and raced 40 yards to make it 17-7 with 2:07 left in the second quarter.
That had the look and feel of a fatal error. But Cook, again facing MSU's biggest deficit of the season, refused to let it be one. A 37-yard bomb to Bennie Fowler, who made an acrobatic catch, set MSU up at the Stanford 3.
Cook improvised again to Pendleton to make it 17-14, a 2-yard flip to him with 28 ticks on the clock.
It was a new game after MSU took the opening kick of the second half and drove 61 yards for a 31-yard Michael Geiger field goal. And there would be no more points for another quarter of play - with both teams trading off big plays and big mistakes.
Langford fumbled away an MSU scoring chance late in the third - his first lost fumble since the season opener against Western Michigan -- after MSU stuffed Gaffney on a fourth-and-3 from the MSU 36. But the Spartans got it back and Cook finally gave them the lead.
On third-and-8 from the Stanford 25, he stepped back and put a perfect pass on Lippett, running free on a post pattern. Lippett caught it and bulled into the end zone with 13:22 left in the game for MSU's first lead.
It would stay that way until Stanford appeared to convert an unintentional fake field goal deep in MSU territory on a prayer of a pass. But it was called back for ineligible man downfield.
The Cardinal kicked a field goal, setting up that final fourth-down stop for Elsworth and Co.