All eyes in the college football world will be focused on Eugene, Ore. this Saturday, as Michigan State takes on Oregon in a clash of top 10 teams. The Spartans handled Jacksonville State 45-7 last Friday and dodged a bullet after a nasty hit to quarterback Connor Cook’s knee in the first half. The Ducks had a similar Week 1 outcome, thrashing South Dakota for a 62-13 victory. Both teams are relatively healthy for this critical showdown that should have major playoff implications.
Michigan State at Oregon
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Oregon -12
Three Things to Watch
1. Oregon’s DL versus Michigan State’s Rushing Attack
The battle at the line of scrimmage is going to play a huge role in Saturday’s outcome. Oregon’s defense allowed 3.9 yards per carry in Pac-12 games last year, but one team – Stanford – has provided the Ducks with plenty of headaches over the last few seasons. Why is Stanford important? Michigan State and Stanford have similar styles on offense. There's a clear edge in offensive play to the Cardinal in recent years, but coach Mark Dantonio's line returns a veteran group up front. The Spartans were relatively balanced in 2013, recording 173.8 yards per game on the ground and 211.7 through the air. Running back Jeremy Langford leads the ground attack and could see 30-35 carries on Saturday afternoon. The Ducks spent the offseason trying to get stronger at the point of attack. No, this defense doesn’t have a huge problem against the run, but Oregon has to limit Michigan State’s production on the ground. Time of possession doesn’t mean much. However, the Ducks can’t afford to let the Spartans have several long, time-consuming (and successful) drives on Saturday.
2. Marcus Mariota versus Michigan State’s secondary
The Spartans allowed 222 passing yards in the opener, but a chunk of that yardage came with the outcome no longer in doubt. Again, it’s tough to read much into the opener, so this will be the first true test for a Michigan State secondary that has to replace two starters, including standout corner Darqueze Dennard. The cupboard isn’t bare for coordinator Pat Narduzzi, as junior Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond are All-Big Ten caliber players. Mariota is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and is throwing to a revamped group of receivers. Despite the overhaul on the pass-catchers, the Ducks aren’t hurting for talent. Considering Michigan State’s strength in the trenches, will Mariota and coordinator Scott Frost look to use quick passes to neutralize the pass rush? Keep an eye on the matchup on the outside, as the Spartans’ defense tries to match the speed and quickness of the Ducks’ skill talent.
3. Michigan State’s Defensive Line
In Athlon’s 2014 preseason college football magazine, Michigan State’s defensive line ranked as the No. 3 group in the nation behind Alabama and Ohio State. And the Spartans certainly lived up to that billing in Week 1 by recording five sacks and limiting Jacksonville State to just 22 yards. Of course, the challenge is significantly tougher in Week 2. Oregon has a three-headed monster in the backfield, and junior Byron Marshall will be split more as a receiver in 2014. Marshall, sophomore Thomas Tyner and freshman Royce Freeman could find yards tough to come by against a defensive line that features All-American end Shilique Calhoun and rising stars in end Demetrius Cooper and tackle Malik McDowell. For Oregon to generate any room on the ground, it’s up to the five blockers in front of Mariota. And there’s been some shuffling this preseason with an injury to standout tackle Tyler Johnstone. If Calhoun, Cooper and Marcus Rush own the line of scrimmage, Mariota will have a tough time finding a clean pocket. One x-factor to watch: Mariota’s scrambling ability. With an active defensive front like Michigan State's, Mariota's ability to make plays outside of the pocket could be a valuable asset in Saturday's game.
Without question, this is the marquee game of Week 2. Oregon and Michigan State have national title aspirations, and the winner of this matchup will take a huge step forward to securing a playoff spot. The loser of this game certainly isn’t out of it, but the head-to-head win could be huge when it’s time to determine the playoff selections.
Pace and tempo are two keys to watch. Michigan State would prefer a methodical approach, while Oregon wants to speed up the tempo. If the Ducks are able to establish their tempo and make the Spartans play in a shootout, Mark Helfrich’s team will win.
Even though it’s difficult to win in Autzen Stadium, Michigan State is built to knock off the Ducks. The Spartans have the players in the trenches and rushing attack to move the ball on the ground and keep Oregon’s offense on the sidelines. And quarterback Connor Cook is no stranger to delivering on the big stage after standout performances against Stanford and Ohio State last year.