Every week is important, but the showdowns with Michigan State on September 6th, at UCLA on October 11th, and Stanford on November 1st will determine whether Oregon can achieve a dream season, the conference title and a spot in the first NCAA Division One playoff.
Michigan State did something the Ducks haven’t been able to do for the last two seasons: they were more physical than Stanford (Kirby Lee, USA Today Sports images).
It helps that two of the three are in Autzen Stadium, but to win all three the Ducks will have to contain the run. In their two losses last year they were burned by big days on the ground. The Stanford offensive line pounded them them for 257 rushing yards, and two and a half weeks later the Arizona Wildcats used a brilliant game plan and near-flawless execution to roll up 304 rushing yards in a 42-16 pasting that stands as the worst upset by an Oregon opponent since the mid-2000s.
The Ducks recovered somewhat with wins over Oregon State and Texas, but even in those games the opponent had unchecked success on the ground. Both the Beavers and Longhorns did the UO defense a favor by abandoning the rushing attack in the second half.
Michigan State coaches have probably seen the film, and they have 206-lb. tailback Jeremy Langford returning from last year’s Rose Bowl Champion squad. Langford rushed for 1422 yards last season, with 18 tds.
Like Oregon, Michigan State has a 6-4 quarterback who’s among the top candidates for both the Heisman and the first round of the NFL draft. The Spartans Connor Cook threw for over 300 yards in both the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl, earning MVP of the Granddaddy after his 22-36, 332-yard, two-touchdown performance, MSU’s first trip to Pasadena since 1988. Cook doesn’t run much, but he’s an effective leader with good touch on the deep ball, crossing up opponents with play action off that devastating running game.
As a sophomore in 2013 Cook had to battle to wrest the starting job from erratic veteran Andrew Maxwell. He took over for good in game three against Youngstown State and threw four touchdowns, lost the next week to Notre Dame, a dismal outing in which he managed just 135 yards passing, but then righted himself, relying on Langford and the rock-solid running game while passing for over 200 yards in seven of his final ten games.
He’s confident now, both for himself and his team. Asked by ESPN last week what the Spartans were aiming for as defending champs, he said without hesitation, “Obviously nothing less than a Big Ten championship. After the season we had, winning the Rose Bowl, winning the Big Ten, anything less would be a failure. Obviously the expectations are sky high.”
As a fan you have to like that he said it straight out.
His confidence is warranted. Coach Mark Dantonio has averaged 10.5 wins a season for the last four years. They return a solid quarterback and one of the country’s most reliable runners. 310- pound tackle Jack Conklin came in last year as a freshman and didn’t allow a sack in 13 starts. Center Jack Allen earned a spot on the Rimington Trophy watch list. Second-leading receiver Tony Lippett returns after grabbing 44 balls last season for 613 yards. By himself he constitutes more experience than the Ducks will return at wideout this season.
The Spartans play tough, disciplined football under Dantonio. He’s been at the school seven years, 5-2 against Michigan, already fourth on the school’s all-time win list at 64-29 (.688). They execute well on special teams. Punter Mike Sadler averaged 42.5 yards a kick last season, putting a phenomenal 43% inside the 20. Field goal kicker Michael Geiger nailed 14-15 as a freshman in 2013, hitting his last 13 in a row with a long of 49 yards.
But it’s on defense that MSU gets their identity, and that’s how they will most sternly test the Ducks. They are a fast, physical unit known for their aggressive zone blitz. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ‘s unit gave up just 13.2 points a game last season, good for third in the country.
Under Narduzzi the Michigan State D is the only team besides Alabama to rank among the top 11 nationally in the four major defensive categories in each of the past three seasons.
Rumored for the vacant head coaching position at Connecticut last season and offered a big raise to become DC at Texas A&M, the veteran coordinator stayed. He told ESPN, “I don’t think there’s a team in the country that does what we do. We’re more cutting edge [with] zone pressure. We’re cutting edge with how we play our quarters [Cover 4] coverage. It’s adapted to if you play Stanford, a two-back, two-tight end team, or an empty team. We do a lot of things people don’t do and to be honest, people are trying to copycat it all over the country.”
The defense replaces six starters in 2014, but hasn’t lost any of it’s swagger or intensity. Cat-quick defensive end Shilique Calhoun had 7 1/2 sacks and three defensive touchdowns last season–he’ll test left tackle Tyler Johnstone’s repaired knee, rushing from the weak side. Calhoun made All-American as a sophomore, recovering four fumbles and intercepting a pass.
They call the Michigan State secondary The No-Fly Zone. They lost Darqueze Dennard, the reigning Thorpe Award winner, but safety Kurtis Drummond returns, who tied for the team lead with four picks and was second with 91 tackles, and Trae Waynes, who was an All-Big Ten corner as a sophomore after recording 50 tackles and three interceptions.
The meme about Oregon is that they’re soft and flashy, and struggle in big games against physical teams, a line of talking-head blather that persists despite BCS bowl wins over Wisconsin and Kansas State, and torching 5-star haven USC for 62 points and 730 yards in Kenjon Barner’s senior year. The same paralyzed analysis will be wheeled out for Sparty, a national showcase game, maybe the best nonconference game on the slate this September. The 3:30 p.m. kickoff on Fox will draw a huge number and most of the morning commentary on College Game Day. It’s a game that analysts like Comcast’s Aaron Fentress and Rivals’ Scott Reed think the Ducks are going to lose. Oregon can’t stop the run, the thinking goes, and the blur offense seems to lose some of its rhythm against a big, physical defense.
If Mariota and Ekpre-Olomu and company can come in prepared and focused, they can shatter that perception against the Spartans.