By Jon Wilner San Jose Mercury News
LOS ANGELES — Today’s 100th Rose Bowl has been billed as a collision of evenly matched teams with comparable styles. Nowhere is that more true than at the most important position.
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, like Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, is a redshirt sophomore whose accomplishments exceed his experience.
Cook has one conference title and a career winning percentage of 91.6. Hogan has two conference crowns and won 88.8 percent of his starts.
Cook averages 186.4 yards passing per game this season and has 20 touchdowns. Hogan averages 191.3 yards passing per game and has 20 touchdowns.
Both are 6-foot-4, both attended Jesuit high schools, and both come from football-playing families. (Cook’s father, Chris, played for Indiana; several of Hogan’s relatives played for Notre Dame.)
Both quarterbacks are capable of extending plays with their mobility, throwing accurately on the move and striking downfield with play-action passes.
“He’s definitely a better athlete than people give him credit for,” Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said of Cook.
“He’s mobile and can throw on the run. At the same time, he’s incredibly accurate. It’s a dangerous combination.”
Both Hogan and Cook are equal-opportunity passers: Stanford has six players with at least 10 catches; Michigan State has seven.
If there’s a difference between the quarterbacks — between the offenses, really — it lies in Michigan State’s preference for trick plays.
“They play a physical run game and keep you honest with just enough gadget plays and shots down the field,” Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy said. “It’s a pretty solid combination.”
Just as Hogan and Cook posted similar numbers during the regular season, so did Stanford tailback Tyler Gaffney and his counterpart, Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford — especially in the second half of the year.
Gaffney gained an average of 149.7 yards in Stanford’s final seven games. Langford averaged 131.1 in that span.
Most impressively, Langford had four touchdown runs of 26 yards or longer in the fourth quarter of those games.
“He has speed, power, moves — great pass catcher out of the backfield,” Cardinal linebacker A.J. Tarpley said. “He’s going to be tough to stop.”
Gaffney has rushed for 1,618 yards and was honorable mention All-American. But his season in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization (2012) has been the chief topic of conversations during Rose Bowl media events.
“Every single day, the most-asked question is about baseball, something about baseball,” he said. “I’ve heard that question far too many times.”