(Written by Tom Shanahan)
The irony of the 100th Rose Bowl turned out that Michigan State defeated Stanford, a team making its fourth straight BCS bowl trip, at its own game.
Stanford’s defense philosophy, first employed on The Farm by Jim Harbaugh and continued by David Shaw when he succeeded his boss as the Cardinal’s head coach, is to put your best athletes at cornerback. The belief is rooted in having learned the game at the foot of their fathers — long-time coaches Jack Harbaugh and Willie Shaw.
“Jim was the son of a defensive backs coach who was a defensive coordinator,” Shaw said. “I’m the son of a defensive backs coach who was a defensive coordinator. We look for guys who are fast, physical and smart.”
Shaw says that’s never been more important than now with the trend toward passing game rules that favor the receiver. When Harbaugh and Shaw arrived at Stanford in 2007, they moved Richard Sherman from wide receiver to cornerback.
Sherman, a 6-foot-3, 195-pounder, started his college career as a Freshman All-American wide receiver in 2006, so his move wasn’t a case of a wide receiver switched due to stone hands. But Stanford’s record was 1-11 in 2006 under Walt Harris.
Sherman lost a year to a knee injury, but by the time Harbaugh switched him to defense the Cardinal finished 8-5 in 2009 and started their run of four straight BCS bowl with an 12-1 and Orange Bowl victory in 2010.
If you were unaware of Sherman’s prowess in college, you no doubt know him as the NFL’s top shutdown corner with the Seattle Seahawks. He was All-Rookie in 2011 and All-Pro in 2012. He’s one of the reasons the 2013 Seahawks are the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and a Super Bowl favorite.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio isn’t the son of a college or NFL defensive backs coach or defensive coordinator, but he spent his career as a defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator. After he served Ohio State’s 2002 BCS national champions as defensive coordinator, he landed his first job as a head coach at Cincinnati in 2004 and moved on to Michigan State in 2007.
Dantonio is in step with the Stanford strategy when he looks for shutdown cornerbacks. In 2013, Michigan State lined up senior Darqueze Dennard and sophomore Trae Waynes as corners. They don’t have Sherman’s size (Dennard is 5-11, 197, Waynes 6-1, 185), but they have athleticism and coverage skills.
Dennard won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back and was a consensus first-team All-American pick. Waynes was honorable mention All-Big Ten, but Dennard says he has the potential to be better than him. That may be a nod to Waynes’ two inches of height on Dennard.
In the Rose Bowl, the identical philosophies were on display. Michigan State’s Connor Cook passed for 323 yards and two touchdowns against Stanford corners that collected only an honorable mention All-Pac-12 award by Alex Carter. Stanford QB Kevin Hogan threw for only 162 and no touchdowns against Dennard and Waynes.
This is a time to point out that ESPN College Gameday analyst Desmond Howard was wrong again on a prediction involving Michigan State football. Unlike Kirk Hirbstreit, an Ohio State alum, Howard is unable to put aside his maize-and-blue glasses as a Michigan alum despite his paid role as a neutral analyst.
Howard stated that Michigan State’s secondary had never faced a wide receiver as talented as Stanford’s Ty Montgomery. He reasoned that translated to a 17-point Stanford victory. Uh, Montgomery caught three balls for 21 yards before he was hurt in fourth quarter.
Howard should stick to what his homework suggests — or pay attention to the homework provided for him by underlings.
One of the highlights of the ESPN College Gameday show involves the old Indiana coach, Lee Corso. When he disagrees with a colleagues’ prediction, he exclaims, “Not so fast!” Perhaps Corso, who picked Michigan State to win the Rose Bowl, should add a new expression whenever Howard offers a forecast involving Michigan State. He could shout at Howard, “Wrong again!”
Howard overlooked the ability of Michigan State’s cornerbacks to beat Stanford at its own game.