PASADENA, JAN. 1 -- The stars of the game, in no particular order, were a field goal kicker, the left foot of a linebacker and a play called, "make something happen."

If the losers had been able to execute football's most basic play -- the exchange between the center and the quarterback -- the outcome probably would have been different. Yet, when the 74th Rose Bowl was over this evening, all that mattered was this: Michigan State 20, Southern California 17.

It mattered because even though the granddaddy of bowl games almost never decides the national championship anymore, it still attracted 103,847 today, and because people still care about the traditions associated with this game.

That was why the Spartans (9-2-1) were as overjoyed as a football team can be after they had become only the third Big Ten team in 19 years to capture the Rose Bowl trophy and the first since Michigan in 1981.

"I'm still nervous," Coach George Perles said when the brutal, draining game was over. "I hope this clears up any anxiety Big Ten people have about coming out here and winning. We had a great week here. Kids go to college to learn, and part of learning is going to Disneyland and meeting Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.

"We did all that and still knew we had to keep our concentration and win the football game."

The Spartans won because, although they sputtered at times, they never turned the ball over. The Trojans (8-4) turned it over five times, most notably with 1:33 left to play when quarterback Rodney Peete and center John Katnick botched the center exchange for the third time.

"The last one was definitely my fault," Katnick said. "I don't know if the ball was wet or my hand slipped, but the ball never got to Rodney. There's no excuse. I don't know about the others, but the last one was definitely my fault."

That fumble, which was recovered by safety Todd Krumm after it was accidentally kicked by linebacker Kurt Larson, essentially ended USC's chance to hand the Big Ten another mortifying defeat here.

Michigan State dominated the first half, taking a 14-3 lead on touchdown runs of five and three yards by Lorenzo White.

But the game turned, as these games so often do, in the second 30 minutes. USC Coach Larry Smith said he gave no speeches and made no major adjustments at halftime. "All we tried to do," he said, "was get them settled down. Our receivers were running without the football and we were taking ourselves off the field with mistakes."

Two of them were underthrown interceptions by Peete. But he at least partly made up for the lapses early in the third quarter when he threw a strike to Ken Henry racing toward the flag. Henry caught the ball at the 2 and dove in, cutting the margin to 14-10.

The Trojans dominated the third quarter, but a botched snap on a field goal attempt and Peete's overthrow of Eric Affholter stopped drives. The Spartans didn't make a first down until the last play of the quarter, but moved from there to the Southern California 23. From there, John Langeloh kicked a 40-yard field goal with 12:39 left in the game to make it 17-10.

But Peete seemed warmed up and, since his team had all but abandoned the running game he cranked up and quickly hit four straight passes to move the Trojans to the Michigan State 36. But on third and four, he misfired again, overthrowing Henry as he raced toward the end zone.

This time, the non-field goal attempt was intentional. Smith sent Affholter out instead of regular kicker Quinn Rodriguez. Backup quarterback Kevin McLean caught the snap and took off, picking up eight yards and the first down. Two plays after that, Peete found Henry running a post in the back of the end zone and the receiver caught the ball even as Derrick Reed pushed him out of bounds. The catch was good and the score was tied, 17-17, with 8:33 left.

The green-clad Michigan State fans were quiet for the first time, the Trojans fans delirious. When quarterback Bobby McAllister went back on third and eight from his 30, the place was bedlam in anticipation of a Spartans punt and an inevitable winning USC drive.

But sure enough, as McAllister dropped back, the play broke down. "It was a broken play," the quarterback said. "I was supposed to throw left, but Andre {Rison} had gone right. He started to come back to me, but I saw room deep and waved him that way."

Rison, coming towards the ball, saw McAllister wave and dashed back. McAllister, running towards the sidelines, couldn't see him. Just as he ran out of room he jumped in the air and threw -- perfectly. Rison caught the ball 35 yards down field at the Southern California 35.

"We have a name for that play," McAllister said, smiling. "We call it 'make something happen.' "

It made the winning points happen. Because White was tired -- "I guess going around the country doing all-America things, I got a little out of shape," he said -- Perles had backup Blake Ezor in the game. Ezor ran the ball six straight plays, moving it to the 19. Langeloh calmly kicked a 36-yard field goal with 4:14 left and it was 20-17.

There was lots of time left, however. "There was no doubt in our mind," Peete said, "that we were going to take the ball down the field and score."

Peete twice scrambled out of trouble on third down to pick up a first down, the second time gaining 23 yards to the Michigan State 38. An offside -- on a play when Peete was sacked -- moved the ball to the 30. Still, there was plenty of time. Then came the messed-up snap.

"It doesn't matter whose fault it was," Peete said. "We work on it in practice all the time. It's just something you can't allow to happen."

But it did, the ball hitting Peete's leg and bouncing crazily. "It seemed like I was watching the whole thing in slow motion," Krumm said. "Then I saw Kurt {Larson} kick it by accident and it took two of the slowest bounces I've ever seen right into my arms. The next thing I knew, Kurt was picking me up and celebrating. It was like a miracle."

One last desperation Peete interception later, everyone in green was celebrating. Maybe that was what it took for the Big Ten to win a Rose Bowl game; not great plays or jump passes out of bounds or Pac-10 mistakes. It took an accidental kick, a slow-motion hop and a small miracle.

Michigan St. 7 7 0 6 20 USC 3 0 7 7 17 First Quarter

USC -- Rodriguez 34 FG, 7:32

MS -- White 5 run (Langeloh kick), 14:06 Second Quarter

MS -- White 3 run (Langeloh kick), 5:40 Third Quarter

SC -- Henry 33 pass from Peete (Rodriguez kick), 5:26 Fourth Quarter

MS -- Langeloh 40 FG, 2:21

USC -- Henry 22 pass from Peete (Rodriguez kick), 6:27

MS -- Langeloh 36 FG, 10:46

Attendance: 103,847.

Michigan St. USC First downs 11 21 Rushes-yards 60-148 34-161 Passing 128 249 Return Yards 20 90 Comp-Att-Int 4-7-0 22-42-4 Punts 8-47 4-45 Fumbles-Lost 0-0 4-1 Penalties-Yards 5-32 4-20 Time of

RUSHING -- Michigan St., White 35-113, Ezor 11-25, J.Moore 1-9, Pugh 1-2, McAllister 12-(minus 1). Southern

PASSING -- Michigan St., McAllister 4-7-0-128. Southern Cal, Peete 22-41-3-249, McLean 0-1-1-0.

RECEIVING -- Michigan St., Rison 2-91, Bouyer 1-29, Sargent 1-8. Southern Cal, Green 7-58, Henry 3-66, J.Ja