One team will hit the fast lane to the inaugural College Football Playoff, but neither will emerge unscathed from Autzen Stadium Saturday when the No. 3 Oregon Ducks host the No. 7 Michigan State Spartans.
Oregon, the Pac-12 favorite and perennial offensive powerhouse, meets Michigan State, arguably the Big Ten favorite and perennial defensive powerhouse, in a bout that is not only one of the 2014 season's best, but a refreshing callback to when home-and-home arrangements were the norm, rather than the new trend that is neutral-field meetups.
The whole "something has to give" spiel does not do this one justice, either. ESPN Stats & Info offers a digestible way of pointing out that two more evenly matched programs are difficult to find:
Looking ahead to Saturday, Oregon's O & Michigan State's D have ranked in top 10 in PPG & Opp PPG, respectively, each of last 3 seasons— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 2, 2014
Below, let's run through all the critical info surrounding the heavyweight bout before nailing down a prediction for one of the most unpredictable games in recent history.
When: Saturday, September 6, 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):
- Over/Under: 55.5
- Spread: Oregon (-11)
Team Injury Reports
|Connor Cook||QB||08/31/2014||is probable for Saturday's game against Oregon||Probable||leg|
|Travis Jackson||G||09/02/2014||is probable for Saturday's game against Oregon||Probable||back|
|Macgarrett Kings Jr||WR||09/02/2014||is probable for Saturday's game against Oregon||Probable||ankle|
|Damon Knox||DT||08/03/2014||is out indefinitely||Out||undisclosed|
|Connor Kruse||G||08/18/2014||is out indefinitely||Out||undisclosed|
|Jeremy Langford||RB||08/31/2014||is probable for Saturday's game against Oregon||Probable||leg|
|Bralon Addison||WR||08/05/2014||is out indefinitely||Out||knee|
|Ifo Ekpre-Olomu||CB||09/02/2014||is probable for Saturday's game against Michigan State||Probable||ankle|
|Tyler Johnstone||T||08/11/2014||will miss the entire season||Out||knee|
Injury reports via USA Today.
War of Contrasting Styles
Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has done a splendid job since 2007, but even he has perhaps never been tasked with such a daunting feat—shutting down Oregon and its bevy of skill players, not to mention Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota.
He knows it, too.
"They are a lot faster than we are, if you watch the tape," Narduzzi said, per Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press. "We will have our hands full."
Indeed. In fact, Narduzzi's unit rarely has to deal with the type of attack the Ducks bring to the table. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Ducks have run the zone read on 44 percent of their rushing attempts since the beginning of last season—the Spartans have only faced that wrinkle 12 percent of the time in that same period.
The ground game is clearly how Oregon wants to primarily operate this season. In last week's 62-13 trouncing of South Dakota, four players rushed for 40 or more yards, and the team as a whole generated 7.7 yards per carry and four scores on the ground.
Heck, it was a running back—junior Byron Marshall—who led the team in receiving with eight grabs for 90 yards.
The sliver of hope for Michigan State is that, despite giving up 273 yards on the ground against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game last year to a similar attack, Stanford already wrote the blueprint on how to shut down the Ducks.
Last year, David Shaw's team pulled off the upset and held Oregon to 62 rushing yards and a 2.6 average. To pretend the Spartans cannot do the same is downright ignorant.
The numbers speak for themselves, but understand that Narduzzi's blitz-heavy, run-oriented attack will give Mariota some pause in the pocket. More importantly, that hidden yardage the Ducks are so accustomed to racking up—missed tackles, overpursuits and the like—won't be there Saturday against a disciplined unit, the same way it wasn't there against Stanford last season.
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich surely understands the task his explosive offense faces, and he has one player in mind to key on—end Shilique Calhoun, who racked up 7.5 sacks last year and has one already this season.
Something that won't get enough attention leading up to the contest is just how well the Spartans offense has progressed under the guidance of quarterback Connor Cook. In a 45-7 win over Jacksonville State last week, Cook misfired on just one attempt and went for 285 yards and three scores.
Cook and the offense now get to go against a sloppy Ducks defense that missed a wealth of tackles and allowed South Dakota to rack up 370 total yards, 172 of which came on the ground. Even worse, star corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is hobbled, as Andrew Greif of The Oregonian explains to Mike Griffith of MLive.com:
He's the All-American who is the glue of the secondary but he limped off after changing direction early in the second quarter Saturday evening. He did not return after getting the ankle re-taped, but said he tried to play before coaches told him he wasn't needed. He didn't seem in obvious pain afterward as he walked to the training room, but had a limp. Ekpre-Olomu at less than 100 percent is still better than most college corners, but it's a concern.
If Cook and star back Jeremy Langford (who also hobbled off the field a week ago) can produce against a defense that may not be operating at 100 percent this early in the season, the game may turn out much closer than most would have anticipated—just look at the odds.
Which team wins?
The reality is, Mariota is a Heisman favorite and future NFL draftee for good reason, and he returned to the collegiate landscape for contests such as this.
While the offense will surely have its hiccups against a physical defense, Mariota should help the Ducks to jump out to an early lead. Cook and the Michigan State offense are not a unit built to score in droves, let alone do so in a hurry, so expect the Ducks to force the Spartans out of their comfort zone quickly.
When these two meet in East Lansing in 2015, it may very well end up a different result. But this season, with Mariota under center in a venue the program has gone 92-17 at since 1997, the Ducks are the pick, albeit a close one.
Prediction: Ducks 27, Spartans 24
Statistics courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.