The Michigan State Spartans had joined the Big Ten in 1950, but did not play a full schedule until the 1953 season. They only lost one game, 0-6 at Purdue. The Purdue loss broke a 28-game winning streak, which included two National Championships. The Spartans were co-champions with Illinois. The Illini and Spartans did not play each other. However, Illinois had last appeared in the 1952 Rose Bowl. Clarence "Biggie" Munn announced his retirement before the 1954 Rose Bowl game.
In the 1952 season, the Bruins lost only one game, to USC 12–14. USC took the 1953 Rose Bowl berth. Both teams had been undefeated. In the 1953 season, the Bruins again lost only one regular season game, 20–21 at Stanford on October 17. Stanford would later be defeated by USC on November 7. With the Rose Bowl on the line for both teams, UCLA defeated USC 13–0 to win the Pacific Coast Conference outright and gain the Rose Bowl berth.
This was the first meeting between the two schools. It was the first Rose Bowl appearance for the Spartans. They had previously only played in the 1938 Orange Bowl. It was the third bowl appearance for the Bruins. The weather was sunny. The Spartans wore their green home jerseys and the Bruins wore their white road jerseys.
The Spartans fumbled twice in the first half, which allowed the Bruins the first two scores. Michigan State had only one completed pass and 56 yards in the first half. The Spartans scored a touchdown with 4:45 remaining in the first half.
Victor Postula knocked down four Bruin passes. Coach Biggie Munn instituted a "split line offense" against the Bruins.
The Spartans assembled two long drives in the third quarter to pull ahead 21–-14. The Bruins recovered another Spartan fumble and scored to make the score 21-20. But the extra point kick failed. Billy Wells of Michigan State returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown with 4:51 left in the game.
UCLA went on to win a shared National Championship for the 1954 season. It was the first "split" championship in college football, when the writers selected Ohio State and the coaches chose UCLA. The Bruins didn't play in the 1955 Rose Bowl game because of the no-repeat rule in effect then.
In their first official season in the Big Ten, the Spartans led the league in the number of black players. Michigan State's eight black athletes represented nearly a quarter of all African Americans in the entire conference.
^Robinson, Will - "Nine of the Big Ten Schools Are Using Negro Football Players," Pittsburgh Courier, October 3, 1953. The Big Ten as a whole carried thirty-three black players in 1953. The team breakdown was: Michigan State-eight, Illinois-seven, Iowa-six, Michigan-four, Indiana-three, Ohio State-two, Minnesota-one, Wisconsin-one, Northwestern-one, and Purdue-zero.