1. What's going to be Michigan State's offensive gameplan against the tough Stanford defense? Will it look similar to the Big Ten title game, or was Connor Cook just in NBA Jam "On Fire" mode?
I would expect it to be similar to the Big Ten title game, and it's not all that complicated. They'll try to run to set up the pass. Generally, the run game struggles early, so they move to the pass, things open up and the run game gets better as the game goes on. Something they've done this year that they didn't do much against the Buckeyes was run jetsweeps with receiver/running back R.J. Shelton. He's frequently in motion, and the goal is the spread out the defense and keep the honest.
The Ohio State game was definitely Cook's best game, but it was a culmination of improvement throughout the year. MSU's offense was a punchline early in the year, and for good reason. Cook was the backup to start the year, but took over in the first game and has started every game since. He's always had a strong arm and he's mobile, but his vision has become very strong, as he rarely throws it into coverage. He tends to find the open guy (if there is one) and throws it where only they can get it. He only has five interceptions on the season. His biggest improvement is in his footwork. He was wildly inaccurate early in the year, mostly sailing balls because of footwork, but that has gotten much better as the season as gone on.
2. How can Stanford effectively attack the MSU passing defense, which ranks 5th in the country and boasts a likely first rounder in Darqueze Dennard?
Its biggest weakness is the deep ball. MSU generally plays single coverage and uses linebacker (and safeties) to stop the run. MSU's defense is all about forcing college quarterbacks to make throws they normally can't, and that includes deep balls down the sideline or the seam. MSU's cornerbacks are used to playing one-on-one, and it usually takes a really good throw to beat them, which most college QBs can't make. In the loss to Notre Dame, the Irish literally just chucked it up play after play, hoping for a catch or a pass interference penalty. They scored 17 points, and each scoring drive was aided by a flag. No one else has attempted that strategy, but it might be worth it.
3. Do you expect any specific wrinkles in the Spartans' gameplan, either on offense or defense, specifically geared to attack Stanford?
On defense, I don't expect anything fancy. The defense generally doesn't change anyway, and Stanford's power running game will try to go right into the gut of it (where they have actually struggled, at times). I expect at least seven in the box at all times, with safeties close to the line of scrimmage.
On offense, they have shown a propensity to break out some new things, such as counter runs against Northwestern they hadn't used all year. What it could be in this game, I have no idea, but they'll probably have some new things. They'll also certainly have some trick plays ready for the right situations, so be ready for that.
4. The Spartans looked laser-focused in the Big Ten title game, but do you think any of that intensity has worn off in the month since then?
I don't think the intensity has worn off in that sense, but I do wonder about how happy they will are simply to be there. Getting to the Rose Bowl has always been the No. 1 goal. Now that they're there, how pumped up will they be? They've never been in this position, so we'll see. Judging but the fact it looks like this will be very much a pro-MSU crowd, I think that atmosphere could get the juices flowing. Hard to know.
5. What's your score prediction and why?
I'm going to go 23-20 MSU, but this could obviously go either way. I think MSU will have some trouble early with Stanford's power running up the middle, and the loss of Max Bullough will be felt. But I also think the MSU offense will be able to find some success. Stanford does a great job of getting to the quarterback, while this is MSU's best offensive line under Mark Dantonio, allowing just one sack per game. I think Connor Cook is able to get some big plays in the passing game, and the defense is able to hold on enough for the win.