Jan. 2, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
PASADENA, Calif. - Michigan State middle linebacker Kyler Elsworth spent five years preparing for a career that in a manner of speaking consisted of one game.
A long-time backup and special teams' maven, Elsworth got his first start in his last game as a Spartan in Wednesday's Rose Bowl against Stanford due to the suspension of Max Bullough. The fifth-year senior capitalized on his opportunity by making the leaping tackle of Cardinal fullback Ryan Hewitt for no gain on fourth-and-1 with 1:43 remaining to seal MSU's 24-20 victory.
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Elsworth, who passed up a Division-I wrestling scholarship to walk on at MSU, met the 6-4, 246-pound Hewitt head-on at the Stanford 34-yard line, with some help from linebacker Darien Harris and defensive end Shilique Calhoun, and that's where it ended for all intents and purposes.
"I couldn't have asked for a better stage to play on or start my first game in five years," Elsworth said. "Darien Harris and Shilique were on both sides. They were coming in from left and right and I was right there in the middle.
"This is the way everyone wants to end their career."
Elsworth not only won Defensive Player of the Game honors, he made a play that will go down in Michigan State Rose Bowl history with Ellis Duckett's blocked punt against UCLA in 1954, Dave Kaiser's game-winning 41-yard field goal against the Bruins in '56 and Bobby McAllister's leaping 36-yard pass to Andre Rison to set up the winning field goal against Southern Cal in '88.
"I think that defensive player award goes out to the whole defense," Elsworth said. "The (defensive backs), the D-line, the linebackers all stepped up with their communication and really rallied around myself, or if it was Darien Harris in there.
"That goes out to everyone on the team on defense."
Elsworth handled the assignment by staying within himself and not trying to do too much.
"At first, it was really nerve-wracking, thinking I'm taking on a big role here," he said. "I thought I was going to come here and play some special teams and maybe get in on some goal-line packages. After I saw the faith, my team, my coaches and even the Spartan Nation had, saying they think (I) could step and do the job, it really gave me the confidence.
"I didn't try to be Max Bullough. I tried to be myself, make the calls and do what I could. I did what I was coached to do. I've been preparing for this opportunity for five years."
Michigan State knew Stanford would have to a go for the game-winning touchdown after getting the ball back at its own 25 on a 51-yard Mike Sadler punt with 3:06 remaining in the game. The Cardinal netted 9 yards on three plays to set up the dramatic stop. "I was hoping (Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan) was handing the ball off, because otherwise I just tackled the wrong guy," Elsworth said. "It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime plays that you hope to be able to dive over the pile and stop them on fourth down, give the ball back to the offense, take a knee and get the win."
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said Elsworth was prepared for the play and actually duplicated it last week.
"If you watch enough tape, you see that they do it on the goal line a lot," Narduzzi said. "You're in a four-point stance and their linemen are (inches) off the ground, so it's hard to get underneath them and there are no gaps. So, they were going to leap over the top. We talked about it, but it's hard to duplicate because you don't have guys jumping over piles in practice.
"As a matter of fact, Kyler jumped over the pile last week in practice, but he was playing outside backer instead of middle backer. He landed on his feet, but you've got to be careful. We knew we had to jump over the top."
Narduzzi put no stock into the notion that the defense would be unable to function without Bullough calling the plays and setting alignments as he did as a three-year starter.
"I think (we did overcome Bullough's absence), which I thought we would," Narduzzi said. "We've got guys who know what to do. They've got the ability. We're trying to put them in a position where you don't have to be this superman to do your job. It's all about alignments and angles, and if they do those things we should be fine."
The Spartans were a little shaky while giving up 102 rushing yards and 17 points in the first half. However, the Cardinal rushed for only 60 yards, and had 137 of their 305 total yards, in the second half.
Has Narduzzi ever been prouder of his defense?
"No, this is the ultimate, obviously," he said. "You end the game on fourth-and-1, and I thought we played pretty solid defense the whole game. We gave up four explosive plays, two runs and two passes, and when you add them up when we've done that over the years, we have a pretty good win percentage."
And, Elsworth feels even better about choosing football over wrestling.
"Now I know I made the right decision," he said. "Everyone said I was crazy to turn down a wrestling scholarship, but who's crazy now?"
GoG Notes & Quotes: As a sixth-year senior defensive tackle, Tyler Hoover understands the commitment Elsworth put in to reach this point.
"He's been working for five years to make that play, and he did it," Hoover said. "I love the kid, I'm so proud of the kid, he's the hardest worker you'll see on the team."
The play was physical football in its purest form.
"It was all about elbows and getting your facemask right next to your hands, and gripping the grass and just shooting yourself under them just so they can't get any inches on you, and then, obviously, Kyler coming over the top," Hoover said. "It will be forever in history."
Former MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins missed an opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl in 2010 when the co-champion Spartans lost a tie-breaker to Wisconsin, and in '11 when they fell to the Badgers in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game.
Cousins served as an honorary captain during the coin flip before the game and shared the thrill vicariously while visiting with the Spartans in the jubilant locker room after the game.
"I feel some closure and some fulfillment and I feel at peace about it all," said Cousins, who played the last two seasons for the Washington Redskins. "I just wanted to see Michigan State get here and to have a front-row seat is very special. They didn't just get here, they did it the right way and they did the tough way.
"They beat an undefeated Ohio State team and they beat a great Stanford team."
Wide receiver Bennie Fowler had 97 yards on just two catches. On a 60-yard play early in the second half, he ran four about 25 yards after the catch while fighting off a defender.
"We were just two guys competing out there," Fowler said. "I was trying to stiff-arm him off me, but he was getting so close I couldn't tell. I should have just kept running."
Fowler said he will talk to head coach Mark Dantonio in the near future about the possibility of petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility based on an injury-shortened season in 2011. If he leaves, it will be with a senior class that achieved 42 wins and bounced back from a 7-6 record in '12.
"It feels great to flip that around," he said. "And the fact that we're on the winningest team in Michigan State history is a great feeling. Winning the Rose Bowl and winning the Big Ten Championship, this season is basically complete. We've got one blemish on our record, but 13-1 is a great record."