NCAA FB

Couch: On this day, old-fashioned smashmouth smells like Roses

Michigan State Spartans linebacker Kyler Elsworth
Michigan State LB Kyler Elsworth's grit made him unlikely hero of Rose Bowl.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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PASADENA, CALIF.

This is exactly why we love football, the way they played it in the Rose Bowl. Stanford smashed Michigan State, and Michigan State smashed Stanford back.

No fancy spread offenses or geniuses or gurus. There is a little Neanderthal in all of us.

Michigan State won 24-20 when linebacker Kyler Elsworth rammed into Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt on fourth-and-1, stopping him short of the first down. Stanford wasn't trying to run around and throw over Michigan State at the big moment.

“When push came to shove,’’ Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, “we started shoving back.’’

I'd almost forgotten what it's like to watch football like this, how thrilling it is.

Is it safe to say I miss this game? It's wrong to say it, for sure. The game had to change with all the concussions and former players drooling on themselves and not remembering how to find their way back home. Or worse. Sooner or later — probably sooner — mothers aren't going to let their kids play this game.

So everything changed to kill defense, basically. And then geniuses took advantage, spreading offenses wide across the field — I swear Baylor puts its receivers in the front row of the stands — to avoid all the collisions.

Sorry, but I like the collisions.

I love the collisions.

I miss the collisions.

But at the same time, when I see them, I wince a little and wonder how that's going to play out in a few years. I have that same feeling when I watch boxing.

You get the thrill from watching fighters smash each other, knocking each other loopy until someone finally falls down. And you have to compartmentalize that thrill and then push down any other thoughts. I've talked with plenty of boxers with slurred speech.

So I'm probably violating some sort of code by even talking about this now, after this amazing game, or worrying about the future of the guys who just played in it.

There are other story lines that would be safer. For one, this felt like the semifinals for the Texas coaching job. Dantonio vs. Stanford's David Shaw. Was Shaw eliminated for losing Wednesday?

On Monday in the BCS national title game, Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, also rumored to be on Texas' wish list, is up.

Texas is the biggest story in college football now, even bigger than the games left to be played. On game night, though, the title game will be bigger.

Reports out of Detroit are that Michigan State is doubling Dantonio's salary in a new contract.

But that won't preclude Texas from going after him, anyway. And Florida State ponied up for Fisher. Alabama gave Nick Saban more paper.

The Texas job opening is making a lot of coaches rich. Dantonio said he intends to be Michigan State's coach next year, and people will jump all over him for not ruling Texas out definitively.

Note: Nobody should ever rule out potential job opportunities.

Another angle is the Big Ten, which has been ridiculed all year for its level of play. The Pac-12 has been praised, sometimes compared favorably to the SEC. Well, the Big Ten champ just beat the Pac-12 champ.

The thing is, football in the Midwest in general has seemed to be stuck in the dinosaur ages. There are no perennial powerhouses in the Midwest anymore, except maybe Ohio State.

There are all sorts of reasons for that, many involving population shifts and what type of kids make up the heart and soul of teams in the Midwest. Whatever it is, they play smashmouth, and you can't really do that anymore.

Dantonio disagrees: “You win with toughness. There’s no question about that. You win with toughness, physically and mentally.’’

Actually, Shaw disagrees, too. I talked with him about it before the season, when everyone was focusing on Oregon’s hurry-up, spread offense. I asked Shaw how it was that he was the one guy who seemed to know how to stop it. And all he said was that football is still about blocking, tackling, running and toughness.

Stanford beat Oregon again this year, too.

There's still plenty of toughness in the sport, in Alabama and Florida State and other places. But the trend, and rules, are toward a spread offense and a million points.

This game was won by a stop. Elsworth's. He said he was so happy to see the fullback get the ball, because if he hadn't, “I was going to tackle him, anyway.’’

Elsworth has been at Michigan State for five years and had never started a game until Wednesday. And that start came only because linebacker Max Bullough had been suspended; the school hasn't said why.

Elsworth didn’t even get a scholarship until after he had been on the team for two years. I asked him if he ever thought over the years about why he was still there, whether this was even worth it when he rarely even got onto the field. He was coming to the Rose Bowl hoping only to get in on some special teams plays.

“Everyone has that little voice in the back of their head, 'Man, I wish I could start. What am I doing? I'm putting in all of this time.’

“We fill out a goal sheet every week. My last goal every week is, 'Keep a positive attitude. Look at the bigger picture.' If you don't get discouraged, good things will come your way.’’

What good thing came his way? He not only started, but also made the hit that will stick with him, and with Michigan State, for the rest of his life.

What a lesson.

WE ARE FIRED UP!

College football fans are some of the most passionate in sports. See them in action.

I'm not sure how many more games we’re going to see like this. It’s a serious, long-term problem for football, because — and this is just a prediction — once people get used to seeing games go 52-49, that's going to lose its appeal.

If they're going to turn football into basketball, we might as well just watch basketball.

At the same time, football can't go back to being what it was when teams played the way they did Wednesday.

Something just felt right about it. Something felt right about a guy like Elsworth spending five years to get a lifetime moment, thanks to positivity. For now, let’s just focus on that.

Tagged: Florida State, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Florida, Texas, Kyler Elsworth

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