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PASADENA, Calif. — For all the analysis that precedes a contest like the Rose Bowl, Michigan State’s season hinged Wednesday on a quarterback who started the season as a backup and a linebacker who arrived on campus as a walk-on.

The quarterback is Connor Cook. He threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns against a stout Stanford defense.

The linebacker is Kyler Elsworth. He earned a scholarship before the 2011 season. He started in place of suspended captain Max Bullough at middle linebacker, and on the game’s most critical play, he leapt over a pile of bodies late in the fourth quarter and smacked into the opposing ball carrier.

Here they were, two relatively unheralded Spartans, with two essential contributions in Michigan State’s 24-20 victory. Here was Cook, most valuable offensive player of both the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten championship game. Here was Elsworth, who skipped the more enjoyable events this week to watch more film. And here was No. 4 Michigan State and a whole bunch of roses and a glitter cannon, all made possible by the unlikelihood of what took place.

Cook seemed least enthused of all. As coach Mark Dantonio conducted his postgame news conference, Cook leaned forward, his expression blank, his eyes trained straight ahead. Someone asked him about rubbing his eyes, perhaps to wipe away the emotion.

“I was just rubbing my eyes because I’m really tired,” he said.

Sometimes, Cook looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate at the Rose Bowl. Sometimes, he looked lost. Sometimes, he looked like a sophomore at the end of an uneven season.

Mostly, Cook turned a perceived weakness (Michigan State’s passing offense) into the most unlikely of strengths. He threw short passes and intermediate passes, comebacks and slant routes and long fades. He surpassed 300 passing yards for the second time this season — and the second time in the past two games, against a pair of top-five opponents, no less.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride,” Cook said, “but this is the stuff you dream about when you’re a kid.”

This 100th Rose Bowl, like so many football games, came down to a quarterback. And a stop. It happened late in the fourth quarter, fourth-and-one, the ball at the 34-yard line, less than two minutes remaining. Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney said afterward that everyone in the stadium knew what was coming: a handoff, a push forward, a runner headed straight ahead.

The fifth-ranked Cardinal called time out and lined up. Michigan State countered with a timeout of its own.

When play resumed, Stanford sent fullback Ryan Hewitt into the line. Bodies met bodies until they formed an indistinguishable mash, with one body flying above the rest. It was, Gaffney later said, “a test of wills.”

Or, as Stanford coach David Shaw put it after Elsworth and others stopped the play for no gain, “They’re that good up front.”

Still, the Cardinal has sustained a run of college football excellence. This marked Stanford’s fourth consecutive appearance in the Bowl Championship Series and second consecutive Rose Bowl. This one ended in defeat, although Shaw said the seniors should be regarded as the most successful class in program history.

Both teams earned reputations this season as defensive juggernauts. Michigan State (13-1) allowed teams 2.70 yards a carry, best in the nation; Stanford (11-3) allowed 2.98. Neither team struck fear into opponents with their passing attacks.

Cook made some really bad throws and some really questionable decisions. Stanford, in fact, took a 17-7 lead in the second quarter when linebacker Kevin Anderson received an errant throw from Cook and returned it 40 yards into the end zone.

“I don’t want to say we were tourists in the first half,” Dantonio said, “but we didn’t have our flash, the emotions we usually have. But like we always have, we recollected. We’re a resilient football team.”

Cook threw another interception that was voided by a defensive penalty. He had at least two other interceptions dropped. One hit a Stanford cornerback in the stomach.

After the touchdown return, Dantonio found Cook on the sideline.

“You good?” the coach asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” the QB responded.

They bumped fists, and Cook hustled back onto the field.

Cook led Michigan State on a scoring drive near the end of the first half. He completed passes of 24, 11 and 37 yards, before evading pressure and finding fullback Trevon Pendleton for a 2-yard touchdown.

Coming up Roses

Big Ten teams had lost in nine of their past 10 Rose Bowl appearances before Michigan State broke through Wednesday:
Year Outcome
2001 Washington 34, Purdue 24
2004 USC 28, Michigan 24
2005 Texas 38, Michigan 37
2007 USC 32, Michigan 18
2008 USC 49, Illinois 17
2009 USC 38, Penn State 24
2010 Ohio State 26, Oregon 17
2011 TCU 21, Wisconsin 19
2012 Oregon 45, Wisconsin 38
2013 Stanford 20, Wisconsin 14

The Orange County Register

contributed to this report.