Oregon Ducks vs. Michigan State Spartans Complete Game Preview
On Saturday in Eugene, Oregon a team will claim an inside track to the first ever College Football Playoff. Pac-12 powerhouse Oregon will host Big-10 co-favorite Michigan State in a battle of Top 10 programs.
Let's just call it flash versus smash.
Oregon, currently ranked third in the country according to the Associated Press, comes in fresh off a 62-13 blowout over South Dakota. Michigan State, the defending Rose Bowl champion, is ranked eighth in the country and took down Jacksonville State 45-7 this past weekend.
The Ducks come in featuring one of the best offenses in college football. The offense ranked second in the nation in total yards in 2013 and third in points per game. Meanwhile, the Spartans defense was ranked third in the country last season in points per game and second in total yards.
It’s a clash of clashes and should be treated as such. ESPN’s College Gameday will be broadcasting from the University of Oregon campus on Saturday morning. This will be the sixth consecutive year that the program has taken its talents to Eugene, though it will be the first featuring Oregon and a non-Pac-12 opponent.
In terms of the actual game, here’s what you need to know:
Date: Saturday, Sept. 6th
Time: 3:30 p.m. PT
Place: Autzen Stadium (Eugene, OR)
Spread: Oregon -12 according to Oddsshark.com.
Oregon Keys to Victory
Run the Ball Efficiently
Oregon has struggled against smash mouth defenses in the past. Yes, we’re talking about Stanford. But we’re also talking about LSU and Auburn. While the Ducks have three extremely capable running backs in Thomas Tyner, Byron Marshall and freshman Royce Freeman, they’ve rarely faced defenses as strong as Michigan State’s.
Oregon struggled against Stanford last year because the running backs failed to penetrate the defensive line. The Ducks offensive line is partially to blame for Oregon’s inability to run the ball well against Stanford. We could also point out that the Ducks zone-read rushing attack was neutralized due to quarterback Marcus Mariota’s sprained MCL.
In order for the Ducks to move the ball up and down the field against Michigan State, the offensive line is going to need to play well and the running backs are going to have to run the ball north-and-south, instead of east-and-west.
If the Ducks fail to run the ball well, Mariota is going to be faced with a ton of third-and-longs against the ferocious Spartans secondary. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Make Tackles in the Open Field
Oregon’s young defense, which is replacing six starters from last year’s team, had trouble tackling in open space against an inferior South Dakota team. That will not get the job done against Michigan State.
The Spartans don’t employ the flashiest offense in the country, but it seems to have gotten the job done relatively well over the past two seasons. Connor Cook is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation that no one really knows about. Running back Jeremy Langford is extremely talented, as are wide receivers Tony Lippett, Josiah Price, and A.J. Troup.
If the Ducks make the same types of mistakes they made last weekend and miss easy tackles, it’s not going to be pretty for Oregon.
Michigan State Keys to Victory
Stop the Run
The Ducks offense is predicated on the zone-read. Everything they do revolves around being able to run the ball when they want and how they want.
Stanford has been successful against Oregon over the past two seasons because they’ve been able to neutralize the running game and force Marcus Mariota into third-and-long conversions.
Oregon lost its top-four wide receivers from a year ago. Asking the fresh-faced wide receivers to convert long third downs all game may be too much for the Ducks to handle.
If Michigan State wants to have any chance at slowing down the Ducks electric offense, they’re going to have to not just contain the rushing attack, but shut it down completely.
Take Advantage of Oregon’s Defense
While the Ducks are plenty talented defensively, they have been known to miss tackles in the open field. They also tend to go for the “bend but don’t break approach”—meaning they’ll give up yards but they succeed on third downs and in the turnover battle.
In order for Michigan State to score regularly on Saturday, they’re going to need to get the ball to their playmakers in open space, run the ball off the edges and force the Ducks to make tackles.
Additionally, Oregon only returns one starter in the secondary, All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. However, Ekpre-Olomu suffered an ankle injury in the opener versus South Dakota and may not be at full strength by Saturday. That means Connor Cook and Michigan State’s offense should look to throw the ball deep early and often.
Oregon Players to Watch
Marshall, the Pac-12’s leading returning rusher, was Oregon’s best player in the opener against South Dakota. Marshall caught eight passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for another 90 yards on eight carries. He would’ve had a third touchdown had he not celebrated his 52-yard scamper and dropped the ball prior to crossing the goal line.
It looks like Marshall may be used in a diminished role as a running back this season as he shares the spotlight with Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman. However, Marshall may be Oregon’s leading receiver this season. Think of Marshall as De’Anthony Thomas with more punch.
While it will be important for Marshall, Tyner, and Freeman to run the ball through the tackle against Michigan State, Marshall’s role is going to be more critical on third down. The Ducks are inevitably going to find themselves in a ton of third-down situations, and Marshall’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield very well may be the difference between moving the chains and punting the ball.
Oregon’s defense is going to need to get to the quarterback and penetrate Michigan State’s offensive line. If they don’t, you can assume the Spartans will take home a victory.
Armstead, who is 6’8”, is the one player who has enough size and force to break through the Spartans offensive line with consistency. The Ducks will need Armstead and defensive end DeForest Buckner to put pressure on Connor Cook in order to help the inexperienced Ducks secondary.
Armstead will also be responsible for plugging up Jeremy Langford’s running lanes and forcing him to run east-and-west. While the Ducks struggled with tackling in the open field last week, Michigan State isn’t used to running around the edges.
If the Ducks defensive line does its job pressuring Cook and forcing outside runs by Langford, Oregon has a much better shot at grabbing a win on Saturday.
Michigan State Players to Watch
In his first game of the season against Jacksonville State, Cook went 12-of-13 for 285 yards and three touchdowns. In other words, he played incredibly well.
Oregon’s secondary, as we’ve mentioned, is a tad inexperienced and the defense in general hasn’t had many snaps on the field together as a collective unit. Look for Cook to take advantage of that inexperience early and try to cut up Oregon’s defense by either throwing over the top or over the middle of the field. If the Ducks defense can’t stop the completion train, look for Cook to continue going back to it all game long.
Calhoun, a junior defensive end, had 7.5 sacks in 2013 and had another in his first game this year. He is most certainly Michigan State’s most feared defender coming into this season.
Putting pressure on a quarterback as talented and elusive as Marcus Mariota is important for any defense. Calhoun, and the rest of the defensive line, is also going to make sure they don’t try to hit home runs against Oregon’s offense. If they do, Oregon is too smart and too fast. They’ll take advantage of the slightest mistake and make you pay.
If Calhoun can get to Mariota and force pressure, without giving up his assignment, then Michigan State can shut down a good portion of what the Ducks want to do on offense.
What They’re Saying
Threat level (1-5 scale): 5. Not since Michigan in 2003 and Oklahoma in 2006 has Oregon seen such a highly ranked non conference opponent come into Autzen Stadium. The Spartans are the reigning Rose Bowl champions and play a physical style that should remind Duck fans of Stanford.
Early prediction: Oregon 35, Michigan State 31
ESPN.com's Ted Miller says Oregon versus Michigan State is the de-facto Rose Bowl for the 2014 season.
There will be no "real" Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015. The "real" Rose Bowl, whose purity previously had been diluted by the BCS, is a casualty of the College Football Playoff this season. While that will make many of us old fogies wince, the only constructive response is to embrace change and recognize the fulfillment of decades-long clamoring for a playoff was inevitably going to kill off some cherished institutions with its birth.
As a consolation prize, however, the college football gods have given us No. 8 Michigan State visiting No. 3 Oregon on Saturday. It's a Rose Bowl matchup the first weekend of September, with the (alleged) Big Ten best versus (alleged) Pac-12 best. With Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out for the season and UCLA's less than scintillating performance at Virginia, this one has gained further traction as a potential CFP selection committee barometer for both teams and both conferences.
In Miller's piece on ESPN.com, Michigan State coach Mark D'Antonio says this matchup isn't an end-all, be-all type of game, but rather a measuring stick.
“[This is] game No. 2. We have 10 games after that. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves," Dantonio said. "It’s not an end-all either way. That’s going to be a measuring stick game for us. Where are we at? Who are we? It will give us a little more of a sense of identity early in the season.”
"Every eye is going to be on us in the country, Oregon and Michigan State," MSU senior running back Nick Hill said. "I think it's a statement game. I think we need to make a statement, not only for Michigan State but for the Big Ten."
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota agrees with Spartans coach Mark D'Antonio that this game is a measuring stick, according to the Detroit Free Press.
“We are very excited. It poses a good challenge for us. It poses a good challenge for the entire team. They’re coming in as one of the best defenses in the country, and any offense would love to face that challenge. It helps you see where you stack up.”
This very well may be a game that determines a spot in the College Football Playoff. Both Michigan State and Oregon are among the five most popular expert picks to reach the College Football Playoff.
While both teams could recover from a loss on Saturday and reach the playoff, it’s going to be a more difficult road. Conversely, whoever wins this game has an early inside track to reaching the playoff.
Oregon’s offense looked as good as ever against South Dakota, but they’ve struggled against defenses that are as physical as Michigan State’s, namely Stanford’s. The Ducks are going to need to prove to the Spartans that they can run the ball efficiently and that they won’t be settling for third-and-longs.
Meanwhile, the Spartans are going to need to score some points against Oregon’s defense, which didn’t look great in the opener. Michigan State’s defense will likely slow down Oregon’s offense a bit, but by no means are they going to stop them completely.
Our own Brian Leigh described this game as a “perfect collision between ‘unstoppable force’ and ‘immovable object’”. That’s a perfect description.
The difference in this game is going to be Oregon’s home-field advantage. Autzen Stadium is one of the loudest, if not the loudest, in the country. Oregon’s offense will score enough points and Oregon’s defense will slow down the Spartans just enough to squeak out an enormous early-season victory.
Oregon 36 – Michigan State 30
Follow Jason Gold on Twitter @TheSportsGuy.