PASADENA — The game considered to be the first Rose Bowl was staged in 1902 to help pay for the Tournament of Roses Parade. An unexpectedly huge crowd of about 8,000 sat on temporary stands in a park and watched Stanford lose 49-0 to Michigan.
No. 5 Stanford has returned to Pasadena 112 years later, facing No. 4 Michigan State on Wednesday in the 100th edition of college football’s quintessential bowl game.
Far fewer fans will show up to Arroyo Seco on horses and buggies this time, and the game probably won’t be called early because of a blowout. The Spartans and Cardinal still believe they’ll put on a display of throwback football for the Granddaddy of Them All’s centennial celebration.
“There is a special quality to it,” said David Yankey, Stanford’s All-American left guard. “The Rose Bowl will still go on, but it’s kind of an end of an era in some sense, and we’re excited to be part of that.”
Both the Rose Bowl game and the stadium have evolved since that initial outing was eventually followed by the institution of an annual New Year’s Day game in 1916. The 100th game falls during the final season of the Bowl Championship Series, and the stadium also will host the last BCS title game on Monday.
Both Stanford and Michigan State fell just shy of contending for that title shot, but it’s tough to find any disappointed players on either team during the usual week of Southern California festivities for the Rose Bowl teams.
The Cardinal (11-2) are in their fourth consecutive BCS bowl game after winning the Pac-12, while the Spartans (12-1) blew through their Big Ten schedule and won their final nine games to earn the long-suffering school’s first trip to Pasadena since 1988.
“I would say this is the biggest game in our program’s history,” Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond said. “Definitely the biggest game in our lives. For us to go down in history as potentially one of the best teams, it’s definitely a challenge that we’re all ready to take on.”
Last year, the Cardinal ended a 40-year Rose Bowl victory drought by holding off Wisconsin in a defense-dominated game. Stanford expects much the same challenge from Michigan State, since both schools have run-first offenses and the patience to grind out wins the old-fashioned way.
Five reasons to watch the Rose Bowl’s odometer flip to triple digits:
MISSING MIDDLE: Michigan State must play without Max Bullough, the starting middle linebacker and the signal-caller for the Spartans’ dominant defense. Kyler Elsworth has mostly taken on the role, but the Spartans will miss their leader. “I’ve been next to Max for three years,” linebacker Denicos Allen said. “For the last game of our season or career here, him not being there is a different experience.”
GAFFNEY’S CHANCE: Stanford tailback Tyler Gaffney took last season off to play pro baseball, but traveled to Pasadena anyway. The experience contributed to his decision to return to football for his senior year, which has featured 1,618 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns. “As a West Coast team, this is the big daddy,” Gaffney said.
STRENGTH ON STRENGTH: Gaffney will feature prominently when Stanford’s running game challenges Michigan State’s overpowering defense, ranked the nation’s best all season long while yielding 248.2 yards per game. The Cardinal have built their success on the ground in the pass-happy Pac-12, although quarterback Kevin Hogan had another quietly solid season. Stanford’s defense is no joke against the run, allowing the nation’s fourth-fewest yards per carry, but Michigan State is No. 1.
LANGFORD’S TURN: While Gaffney gets plenty of attention, Michigan State tailback Jeremy Langford racked up a school-record eight 100-yard games among his 1,338 yards rushing. Langford is confident his Spartans will thrive in adversity. “I actually wanted it to be a hard route to get to the Rose Bowl,” he said. “Every game was a team trying to stop us from our dream.”
FAN FRENZY: Magic Johnson isn’t the only Michigan State fan in Hollywood these days. After a 26-year Rose Bowl absence, the Spartans faithful should cover the stadium in green, with athletic director Mark Hollis expecting more than 50,000 fans. While Stanford’s alumni base is smaller with more recent BCS success, the Cardinal represented well last year. “They were coming out of the woodwork,” Gaffney remembered.