Rose Bowl: Stanford hits Michigan State brick wall again and again

Stubborn to the end, the college football team known for its running game kept running — until the Spartans shut it down.

Tyler Gaffney

Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney is stopped by Spartans linebacker Taiwan Jones (34), defensive lineman Micajah Reynolds (60) and linebacker Marcus Rush (44) on a third-down run in the third quarter. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / January 1, 2014)

Stanford didn't go totally without a victory in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday, even though Michigan State won the game, 24-20.

The Cardinal and its young and successful coach, David Shaw, took top honors in stubbornness. They were rock-solid in that category. No matter what the score, what the situation, what point in the game, they played "Stanford football." Translation is simple: "You establish the running game."

You do so, even if you end up establishing only that Michigan State is too good on defense to allow you to establish the running game.

This should have come as no surprise. Michigan State came into the game as, statistically, the toughest in the country against the run. So Stanford ran, and ran, certainly in situations in which doing otherwise seemed wise.

The phrase about beating your head against a wall works here. Good thing Cardinal players wore helmets.

Stanford ended up stubbornly rushing for 162 yards. However, when you see that almost half of that was on runs by Tyler Gaffney of 47 yards and Michael Rector of 27, it doesn't look quite as good. Looking on the bright side, the Spartans rushed for only 65, so Stanford really showed them there.

But then, something else might be considered here: Michigan State won the game.

The two situations calling the most attention to Stanford's eyes-forward, jaws-locked approach were fourth-down plays, each crucial in a game that could, and did, turn quickly.

The first was in the third quarter, the score tied, 17-17, and the Cardinal marching with a fourth-and-three at Michigan State's 36. Once again, Stanford attempted to establish its running game. The ball was handed to Gaffney, who ended up at the 39 after establishing that, yes, the brick wall was still there.

The second was in the fourth quarter, and a Stanford repeat of last year's Rose Bowl victory was really on the line. With 1:46 left, Michigan State led, 24-20, Stanford was on its 34 and it was fourth down and one.

Guess what.

Stanford sent 246-pound fullback Ryan Hewitt into the line for his only carry of the game. He gained zero yards. They found it again. The brick wall was still there.

Game over. Roll the credits.

Shaw was asked about both plays. You hoped he'd say there was a miscommunication, or his quarterback, Kevin Hogan, had a cramp in his throwing arm, or had a brain cramp and called an audible. Nope. Not the orchestrator of Stubborn U.

Of Gaffney's three-yard loss in the third quarter, Shaw said, "That was the play call," he said. "They played it well."

Of Hewitt's failure on fourth and one, he said, "No, it was the play call. It looked initially like we were going to get the push, and then we got stopped up front."

Oh, my. Those stubborn brick walls.

When Gaffney was asked about the fourth-down plays, it was almost as if he were reading from a script: "We take pride in that. Fourth and one is what we preach on, what we do, what Stanford football is all about.

"You have to give it to Michigan State for stuffing that, because everybody in the building knew exactly what was coming."

Ah, yes. Surprise and creativity at key moments in football games have always been overrated.