PASADENA, Calif. – Not many big-time college football coaches these days are willing to make the decision Mark Dantonio made Christmas night. He suspended a superstar, the face of his program, right before his school's first Rose Bowl appearance in 26 years – without ever saying what the player did, other than violate team rules.
It's still a mystery what two-time senior captain and academic All-American Max Bullough did, but there's no doubt what Dantonio did. He sent a message to his team, and throughout college football, and it was unmistakable: No matter who you are, no matter how high the stakes, no one is above the rules at Michigan State.
How novel. How old school. How utterly refreshing.
Fast-forward to Michigan State's final defensive play of the 100th Rose Bowl. Stanford had the ball on its own 34, fourth and one, with 1:46 remaining, trailing by four. This was the game. How fitting that it would be decided with Michigan State's defense, the nation's best, on the field.
The Spartans stacked their defense tight on the line of scrimmage. As Stanford snapped the ball, an MSU defender flew into the air and over the line, straight at Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt, the ball carrier.
It was senior Kyler Elsworth. The man who replaced Bullough.
What are the odds?
Elsworth stuffed Stanford's final attempt for no gain. Michigan State ran out the clock and won, 24-20, completing a stunning 13-1 season. If Auburn (12-1) were to upset undefeated Florida State on Monday, it will of course win the BCS national title, but you certainly could make the argument that the Spartans are right there with them.
There clearly is no defense quite like it in the game today, no matter who is playing linebacker. Without Bullough, Elsworth stepped in so masterfully he was named the defensive player of the game.
"It was a little nerve-wracking to have the starting job," he said after the game, "but I had the confidence and knew I was getting the job done."
That Michigan State won without Bullough, part of the only three-generation family in Spartan history, proves two things: Dantonio knew what he was doing, and Michigan State has a deeper defensive bench than many thought.
''We missed Max, and I love Max Bullough, but our linebacker position is a position of depth," Dantonio said. "Opportunities come for other players, and they have an opportunity to make good on it. Kyler Elsworth got a chance to make a play and makes the play of the game."
Michigan State's defense didn't look so ferocious in the game's early stages. The Spartans fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter, the quickest and deepest deficit they had faced all season. Previously, their worst first quarter was being behind Indiana, 7-0, but that didn't last long.
Sure enough, the MSU defense began asserting itself, Elsworth in particular. He announced himself near the end of the first half with Michigan State trailing, 10-7, when Stanford was backed up at its own goal line and he drove Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney right into the end zone. Forward progress put the ball at the Stanford 2, but a message had been sent.
Then, with little more than four minutes remaining in the third quarter, Stanford faced fourth-and-three at the MSU 36 with the game tied, 17-17. Gaffney took a handoff, but two Spartan defenders had broken through the Stanford offensive line: Elsworth and fellow linebacker Denicos Allen. Allen grabbed Gaffney and wrestled him to the ground for a loss of three yards, but Elsworth brought the pressure.
He would do it again a quarter later, when it mattered most.
"All week in practice," he said, "we'd get all the big guys in there. It was tough to make the play over the top. But the only way I know is to go over the top."
And so he did.
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