PASADENA — Stanford’s Kevin Danser knelt on one knee and hardly moved on the sideline as Michigan State celebrated its Rose Bowl victory and his Cardinal teammates made their way to the locker room.
The fifth-year senior guard, part of a group of players who have helped transform Stanford into a national powerhouse, wasn’t quite ready to leave it all behind.
“I just wanted to take it all in one last time,” Danser said, his eyes red and a stray last tear making its way toward the side of his nose.
No. 5 Stanford came up short of a second consecutive Rose Bowl victory, losing 24-20 to No. 4 Michigan State on Wednesday.
“This game isn’t the summary of these guys’ career,” Danser said. “We’ve achieved so much. We changed the program.”
The Cardinal (11-3) have racked up 46 victories over the last four years and been to four straight BCS games, playing a pure-power style that often wears opponents down.
They couldn’t do that against Michigan State (13-1). The Cardinal jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter with the help of two long plays, but managed just 159 yards over the last three quarters as the Spartans won the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988.
“It’s like we just won the Super Bowl,’ defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “It’s a great experience and next year we want to win a national championship.”
Tyler Gaffney ran for 91 yards and a touchdown for the Cardinal and Henry Anderson returned an interception 40 yards for a score in the second quarter to make it 17-7.
And that was pretty much it for Stanford.
With one last chance to drive for the win, the Cardinal faced fourth-and-1 from their 34 with 1:46 left. Of course, they tried to get it with brute force, running a fullback dive with Ryan Hewitt. But Kyler Elsworth and Calhoun blew it up for Michigan State and all the Spartans had to do from there was take a knee and celebrate with the swarms of green clad fans who packed the Rose Bowl.
“It looked like we were going to get the push, and then we got stopped up front,” Stanford coach David Shaw said.
Connor Cook threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns against Stanford, despite facing one of the best pass rushing teams in the nation.
“He’s got a lot of poise, especially in the pocket he’s able to extend plays and find open guys,” said linebacker Shayne Skov, another of those fifth-year seniors who leave the Farm with a 54-13 record.
The 100th Rose Bowl figured to be dominated by defenses, with the units ranked No. 1 (Michigan State) and No. 14 (Stanford) in yards per play. It didn’t start that way.
Stanford got a 43-yard reception by Michael Rector and a 47-yard run by Gaffney in the first quarter.
Michigan State’s defense, playing without senior leader and third-team All-America linebacker Max Bullough, righted itself in the second quarter and allowed only 22 yards in the second 15 minutes. Bullough was suspended for what would have been his final game for a violation of team rules that Michigan State has declined to explain. Ellsworth started in his place and played well.
Jeremy Langford’s 2-yard touchdown run, after a Stanford pass interference in the end zone on a pass that sailed high, cut the lead to 10-7 in the second quarter.
Cook, a sophomore in his first season as a starter, had plenty of good moments, but his biggest mistake cost Michigan State dearly in the second quarter. With pressure in his face, Cook tried to flip a screen pass but it was picked off by Anderson, who chugged 40 yards for a touchdown to make it 17-7 Cardinal with 2:07 left in the second.
Earlier, Anderson dropped a potential interception and in the third quarter on consecutive plays Stanford dropped another interception and had one wiped out by a defensive holding.
Cook and the Spartans didn’t stay down for long after the pick-6. Cook found Bennie Fowler deep and the receiver made a reaching catch for a 37-yard gain that set up a first-and-goal. Cook completed the drive, getting rid of the ball just before a rusher blind-sided him for a 2-yard touchdown pass to Trevon Pendleton with 28 seconds left in the first half.
Michigan State tied it on its first drive of the second half with a 31-yard field goal by Michael Geiger and Cook hit Tony Lippett with a 25-yard touchdown pass with 13:22 left in the fourth to make it 24-17.
Williamson cut it to 24-20 with 4:15 left with a 39-yard field goal, but Stanford could get no closer.