PASADENA, Calif. >> Connor Cook passed for a career-high 332 yards and hit Tony Lippett with a tiebreaking 25-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, leading No. 4 Michigan State to a 24-20 victory over No. 5 Stanford on Wednesday night in the 100th Rose Bowl.
Cook also threw a TD pass to Trevon Pendleton, and Jeremy Langford rushed for 84 yards and a score in the first Rose Bowl victory in 26 years for the Big Ten champion Spartans (13-1), who finished the season with 10 straight wins.
Michigan State’s defense capped its dominant season with one more old-school, smash-mouth performance during the centennial celebration of the Granddaddy of Them All.
“It’s a special time for all Spartans, and we came here in force,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “I’m very happy for our football team, the resilience we showed all season long.”
The nation’s best defense ended it by stopping the Pac-12 champion Cardinal (11-3) on fourth-and-1 with 1:46 to play, utterly stuffing a run play up the middle. Kyler Elsworth, who started in place of suspended senior leader Max Bullough, hurdled the pile to deliver an electrifying, head-on hit to fullback Ryan Hewitt.
“When I saw their offensive linemen’s stance, I knew the way to make a play was to go over the top,” said Elsworth, selected the game’s defensive MVP.
Tyler Gaffney ran for 91 yards and an early TD for Stanford, and linebacker Kevin Anderson returned an interception 40 yards for a score late in the first half. But the Cardinal couldn’t follow up last season’s victory in Pasadena with back-to-back Rose Bowl wins, managing just three points from their offense after the first quarter.
The Spartans have long labored in the shadow of Michigan and Ohio State, but coach Dantonio’s seven-year rebuilding project in East Lansing has put them on top of the Midwest this season with an unbeaten run through conference play.
After knocking off the unbeaten Buckeyes in the league title game, Michigan State earned only the Big Ten’s second Rose Bowl win since 2000, even rallying from its first double-digit deficit of the entire season to do it.
Cook led the way in his own inimitable fashion, making incredible plays and huge mistakes along the way. Along with his costly interception to Anderson, he also threw two passes that went through the hands of Cardinal defenders, and an interception in the third quarter was wiped out by a defensive holding call.
But when the Spartans needed big plays in the second half, Cook repeatedly delivered, finishing 22 for 36.
Kevin Hogan beat Wisconsin in last year’s Rose Bowl, but he couldn’t match Cook, going 10 for 18 for 143 yards and a key interception for Stanford.
A mere 112 years after the game considered the first Rose Bowl was played in a park elsewhere in Pasadena, Stanford and Michigan State engaged in an old-fashioned slugfest in the venerable stadium that will host the BCS title game Monday night.
Michigan State fans dominated the Rose Bowl grounds and stands, with about 70 percent wearing green in the crowd of 95,173 — the game’s largest turnout since 1998.
After Tournament of Roses Parade grand marshal Vin Scully flipped the coin, Stanford started with a 77-yard drive culminating in Gaffney’s 16-yard TD run.
Michigan State had never trailed by double digits all season long until Jordan Williamson’s field goal put Stanford up 10-0 late in the first quarter, but the Spartans finally connected with a 13-play, 75-yard drive culminating in Langford’s bounce outside for a 2-yard TD.
The Spartans dominated the second quarter, but Cook handed seven points to the Cardinal shortly before halftime. With Usua Amanam bearing down on him unblocked, Cook inexplicably threw a soft looping pass directly to Anderson, who returned his first career interception untouched for a score — the first defensive touchdown allowed by Michigan State all season.
A hush fell over the partisan crowd, but Cook responded with a stellar drive in the waning minutes, moving Michigan State 75 yards in 99 seconds and evading pursuit to deliver Pendleton’s 2-yard TD catch 28 seconds before halftime.
The Spartans had every bit of momentum after Michael Geiger hit a tying field goal, Trae Waynes made a diving interception and the Michigan State defense stuffed Gaffney on a big fourth down. Stanford’s Shayne Skov forced a fumble by Langford inside the Cardinal 10 late in the third quarter, but Cook connected down the middle with Lippett for the go-ahead score early in the fourth.
Stanford kicked a field goal with 5:05 left.