BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Don't let the elastic waistbands fool you. When Michigan State's football players paraded down the red carpet in their green-and-white traveling sweats, serenaded by a band playing the university's fight song, they had not come to Lawry's 58th Beef Bowl to devour the competition - or the racks of prime rib that were waiting to be sliced.
The Spartans had arrived, mostly, in the name of moderation.
"I'm eating a little beef, not too much - but the corn is great," said Denzel Drone, describing what would seem like hors d'oeuvres for a powerfully built 6-foot-2, 245-pound defensive end.
The Beef Bowl has long had a place on the itineraries of Rose Bowl teams. Conceived by one of the owners of Lawry's, a well-known prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills, the Beef Bowl quickly became an informal eating competition, and in many respects it has changed little over the decades. To the Michigan State secondary coach Harlan Barnett, who played for the Spartans in their last Rose Bowl, 26 years ago, it all looked familiar: The restaurant's carvers were wearing the same tall white hats, the servers were wearing the same nurselike uniforms with sensible white shoes, and the first slab of prime rib was still sliced almost precisely at 16 ounces.
But something profound has changed in recent years. Nutrition is now emphasized as an important component in athletic performance, and players are as likely to count calories as the pounds of meat they can eat.
Lawry's has contributed to this change by limiting the amount of prime rib it serves each player - a 16-ounce cut, followed by a 12-ounce second helping. It no longer publicizes how much each team eats, although the team and individual marks are believed to be held by Purdue in 2001 (734 pounds) and Michigan offensive lineman Ed Muranksy in 1978 (8 pounds).
Richard R. Frank, the president and chief executive of Lawry's, cautioned both teams during their visits - Friday night for Michigan State and Saturday night for Stanford - the Beef Bowl was no longer a competition.
"Save that for Wednesday," he told them, referring to the day of the game.
Stanford, playing in the Rose Bowl for the second consecutive year, did not need such an admonishment. The Cardinal had offensive lineman Josh Garnett, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound sophomore, who, as Stanford coach David Shaw noted, "made his name here before he ever made it on the football field."
A year ago, Garnett was prodded by several senior offensive linemen to go for the record. Others at their long table ordered seconds and sent them down to Garnett, who ate 10 cuts of prime rib, which he estimated to be 7 pounds' worth.
"There were a lot of noises a normal man shouldn't hear - or make," said Kevin Danser, a senior guard who sat next to Garnett last year. "Joshua was in a lot of pain."
Garnett said practice the next day "was not good."
He added, "I moved like somebody who ate 7 pounds of meat and an extra side."
As Garnett left Lawry's on Saturday night, he expected the day-after practice to be much better. He ate one cut of prime rib Saturday, though he allowed himself an extra side.
Another testament to the benefits of slow eating and bite-size chunks occurred two years ago when Oregon lineman Mark Asper put his Eagle Scout training to good use, performing the Heimlich maneuver on a patron who was choking on a piece of meat.
Whereas the evening's experience was familiar to Stanford - "We're seasoned," Danser said - it was new to the Spartans, many of whom recorded their entrance on video cameras or phones. But like the Cardinal players, they were mostly content to savor their meal.