The No. 8 Michigan State Spartans travel to Eugene to face the No. 3 Oregon Ducks in what promises to be the 2014 college football season's early marquee matchup. Both of these teams have plenty to gain with a win on Saturday—especially taking the Week 1 struggles of No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Alabama into consideration.
Both the Spartans and Ducks surged out of the gate in Week 1. Jacksonville State fell victim to a well-rounded Spartans team by a score of 45-7, and South Dakota was trounced by the high-octane Ducks 62-13.
Each team was certainly impressive; however, those Week 1 contests will pale in comparison to what's in store on Saturday. Will Michigan State's stout defense prevail, or will Oregon continue to run over the competition? Let's begin to draw a conclusion by examining the matchups to watch when these squads hit the gridiron.
Byron Marshall vs. Michigan State's Front Seven
Junior running back Byron Marshall lit it up against the Coyotes in Week 1. An incredibly dynamic weapon, Marshall rushed eight times for 90 yards—an average of 11.3 yards per carry—and added eight receptions for 138 yards and two scores.
The Ducks offense is built around its speed and ability to get the ball to playmakers in the open field. Those qualities were on display each time Marshall received a touch against South Dakota.
Bryan Fischer of NFL.com tweeted his impression of Marshall's slot duties on Friday:
Sometimes Mariota is on autopilot he looks so smooth. Byron Marshall slot experiment seems promising given TB depth. Ducks up 42-13 at half— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) August 31, 2014
On the flip side, Michigan State prides itself on a stout defense with the capability to contain even the most prolific of offenses. While Jacksonville State may not fall into the prolific category, they were completely stymied by the Spartans gaining 222 yards through the air—while tossing three interceptions—and just 22 yards rushing.
After just one game, Michigan State picked up right where it left off from last season and is currently ranked fourth in the nation against the run.
Marshall is far shiftier than any of the Gamecocks running backs, and Oregon's uptempo offense will only enhance the degree of difficulty to contain him. Watch for the Ducks to look for mismatches against Michigan State by moving the playmaker all over the field.
Connor Cook vs. Oregon's Secondary
Junior quarterback Connor Cook burst onto the scene last season by passing for 2,755 yards and 22 touchdowns against six interceptions. He continued his stellar play in Week 1 and looked as efficient as ever in the process. Cook completed 12 of his 13 attempts for 285 yards and three touchdowns before leaving the game after only one half.
While Michigan State's defense will have its hands full with Marcus Mariota, Cook may be an even bigger concern for the Ducks entering their Week 2 clash.
ESPN Stats & Info tweeted exactly how impressive Cook's performance was:
Michigan St QB Connor Cook's 99.98 raw QBR vs Jacksonville St was the highest of any QB with at least 15 action plays the last 10 seasons.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 30, 2014
Oregon fared nicely against South Dakota in Week 1, allowing opposing signal-callers to complete just 18 of 34 passing attempts for 198 yards. Although, All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered an ankle injury in the contest, further complicating things for Oregon's secondary.
Luckily, according to a press conference, via Molly Blue of The Oregonian, the cornerback said his ankle is "fine."
We'll see how close he is to 100 percent when these teams take the field on Saturday. He'll certainly be needed against Cook and Co.
Michigan State's Offensive Line vs. Oregon's Pass Rush
The Spartans are a little dinged up along the offensive line. Right guard Connor Kruse suffered a leg injury during camp, and there is no definitive timetable as to when he will return. To make matters worse, left guard Travis Jackson left the team's Week 1 contest with an apparent injury as well.
Jacksonville State was able to get a bit of pressure on Michigan State's quarterbacks in the second half of Friday's contest, and the Spartans were only able to average 4.2 yards per carry as a team.
Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News tweeted an update on Jackson's situation:
Mark Dantonio says no update on Travis Jackson or Macgarrett Kings. With him, no news is usually good news— Matt Charboneau (@mattcharboneau) August 31, 2014
This could be something Oregon can take advantage of on Saturday. The Ducks showed a bit of a pass rush against South Dakota, as Juwaan Williams, Tyson Coleman and Alex Balducci all came away with sacks, according to CFBStats.com.
Even if Oregon's secondary has some trouble dealing with a red-hot Cook, the presence of a reliable pass rush could certainly pick up the slack.