PASADENA, Calif. — When Kyler Elsworth soared over the pile to deliver the final hit of Michigan State's season, the storybook ending came with a moral.
After so many years outside the spotlight, the Spartans are in nobody's shadow anymore. And for the first time in 26 years, they're Rose Bowl champions.
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 for the Big Ten champion Spartans (13-1), who finished their season with 10 straight wins and their first Rose Bowl victory since 1988.
Michigan State overcame its first double-digit deficit of the entire season along the way, and the Spartans' FBS-best defense capped a dominant season with one more old-school, smash-mouth performance befitting the centennial celebration of the Granddaddy of Them All.
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"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."
Michigan State's defense yielded just 159 yards in the final three quarters and ended it by stopping the Pac-12 champion Cardinal (11-3) on fourth-and-1 near midfield with 1:46 to play, stuffing a run play up the middle.
Elsworth, a fill-in starter for suspended senior linebacker Max Bullough, hurdled the pile to deliver an electrifying, head-on hit to fullback Ryan Hewitt while his teammates helped out below.
"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.
The huge Michigan State contingent in the Rose Bowl stands roared at the play, and even the stone-faced Dantonio visibly celebrated.
"I get a little excited at the Rose Bowl," Dantonio deadpanned.
The Spartans have long labored behind Michigan, Ohio State, and even Wisconsin among the Midwest's top programs, but Dantonio's seven-year rebuilding project in East Lansing has put them on top of the Midwest this season with a perfect run through conference play.
After knocking off the unbeaten Buckeyes in the league title game, MSU earned the Big Ten's second Rose Bowl win since 2000.
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. The Cardinal couldn't follow up last season's success in Pasadena with back-to-back Rose Bowl wins, managing just three points from their offense after the first quarter.
Gaffney could only watch as Hewitt was stopped on Stanford's final play.
"You have to give it to Michigan State for stuffing that," said Gaffney, who managed 24 yards after the first quarter. "Everybody in the building knew exactly what was coming. A run was coming up the middle, and it was a test of wills, and they got the better of us."
Cook led 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.
When the Spartans needed big plays in the second half, Cook delivered, finishing 22 for 36.
"When we got down, guys were always helping each other," Cook said. "We're such a balanced team."
Kevin Hogan was 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.
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.
Stanford started with a 77-yard drive culminating in Gaffney's 16-yard TD run. Jordan Williamson's field goal put Stanford up 10-0 late in the first quarter, but the Spartans finally connected with a 13-play drive for Langford's TD.
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.
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 two-yard TD catch 28 seconds before halftime.
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.