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Michigan State Football 2014 Preview Series: Oregon

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Guaranteed to make you quack up.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon: A quick rundown

Game Date, Location: 9/6/14, Eugene, Oregon

Conference: Pac-12

2013 Record: 11-2 (7-2 in conference)

Notable games: 45-24 W at #16 Washington, 42-14 W vs. #12 UCLA, 20-26 L at #6 Stanford, 42-16 L at Arizona

Returning Starters: 8 Offensive, 5 Defensive, 1 Special Teams

2014 F/+ Projected Ranking: 3

FEI Trendline:

Uofei_medium

[Some notes about this trendline: these numbers are not opponent-adjusted. I have inverted DFEI so that the difference between offense (blue) and defense (red) is pretty much the margin for the game. In some cases it'll look screwy if special teams were a major factor.]

Joe Tuohey: Heck, there's so much to say about this game. First, it's difficult to contextualize the magnitude of this game within recent MSU history; the best comparison probably has to be to the 2013-14 basketball game versus Kentucky, right? That's the only game so early in a season versus a legitimate title contender that I could come up with. The 2012 opener against Boise State is in the conversation, but that Boise team was rebuilding in a major way. The winner of this game can probably afford a loss in their conference season and still make the new 4-team playoff field. MSU football has entered a strange new stratosphere.

I want to get into the grisly details of how Oregon might attack the MSU quarters defense, but first we should admire just how much they love their Ducks:

One of the things I can't get over is that Joey Harrington apparently eats his meatloaf with mustard. This is one of the strangest tributes to a football team I've ever seen. Also, they mention that "everybody is going green" at about 2:52 and I can certainly get behind that notion.

Heck Dorland: I've always felt like MSU didn't get enough credit for their relatively tough non-con slates (though I think that's changed just recently). Notre Dame every year (well, until now...), and then additional home-and-homes against teams like Pitt, Cal, Rutgers, Missouri, Hawaii, and Boise State on the reg over the last decade and a half (and teams like USC and Nebraska the decade before that). Even before Hollis, MSU has usually tried to get two 'name' teams on its OOC sched in a time when some teams, particularly a lot of teams in the position MSU was in from 2000-2009 would've grabbed three maybe four sacrificial lambs year in and out. Point of pride.

But yeah, Oregon has to be the biggest name since those Nebraska contests in the mid 90's, and the Kentucky basketball comparison is a good one. Huge game.

"Joey Harrington apparently eats his meatloaf with mustard."

*Werner Herzog voice* This man is of a warped mind, unable to perform even the simplest task correctly.

If feels like that should've been noted prominently on his NFL draft report:

"***puts mustard on meatloaf. Probably doesn't even bake the ketchup on top of it when he makes it. Questionable decision making, prob will throw a ton of picks."

JT: I had a silver Detroit Lions Joey Harrington jersey as a kid. I thought he was the savior of the franchise. It still kind of hurts to think about.

Anyways, let's dig in like Joey digging into meatloaf with mustard. Oregon was especially Oregon-y at the beginning of last season, racking up winning margins of 49, 45, 39, 41, 21, 24 and 28 (all against Power-5 opponents). But the defense fell off a cliff in the last 4 conference games, giving up an average of 37 points. Certainly some of this has to do with level of competition, but the first part of their PAC-12 schedule included big wins on the road against Washington and at home against UCLA. Those teams were both in the F/+ top-20. There was some regression.

Especially interesting is that Oregon lost their long-time defensive coordinator and return just 5 starters to a side which finished 50th in rushing S&P+ defensively. The ingredients are here for a possibly major day running the ball, don't you think?

HD: I want to believe, and yet I'm unsure.

Yes, Oregon loses significant chunks out of the spine of their defense (both safeties and both DTs) and MSU returns a center, an experienced back-up guard, QB, RB, and FB in its spine, so on paper you'd probably favor MSU, but I've seen things play out differently in practice too many times to feel too confident.

If you split the season up into 4 game chunks, only twice in seven seasons (2008, 2010) has MSU put up their best YPC numbers in the first four game chunk, despite the fact that this is theoretically the weakest competition they face all year.

Furthermore, if you look at just the 11 games MSU has played against BCS competition in the non-conference, MSU managed just 3.7 yards per carry, a pretty dismal output, and never averaged more than 4.72 YPC in any single game of those eleven contests.

This is slightly more nuanced way of stating that Dantonio's Spartans are typically slow-starters at getting the run-game gelling, and often particularly struggle in their first match-ups against even competition. Losing 2.5-3 starters on the OL doesn't ease the wariness.

Sell me on a big day for Langford on the ground, Joe.

JT: I'm not sure this was intentional, but I love the "I want to believe" X-Files reference. The truth is out there.

The "truth" in this game is what I'd like to call the Stanford Model. It's basically your classic strategy against an especially explosive offense:

1) Slow the pace to a crawl
This goes back to your point in the JSU preview about pace. The more plays that Oregon gets to run, the more likely that their probable advantages will show themselves.

This is the reason why I'm dancing around this running game point. To slow the game effectively, MSU will need to run the ball at a clip that will keep drives going. Theoretically you could do this with an ultra-efficient short passing game, but that's asking a little much at this point. Anything that keeps the clock moving is good.

In 2013, Stanford ran the ball 66 times at 4.2 yards per carry and threw the ball just 13 times. They had drives of 12, 20, and 14 plays. I don't think that run-pass ratio is realistic for MSU, but the running game should be emphasized.

2) Win the turnover battle
Because obviously.

3) Win field position
Dantonio expressed the importance of this himself during B1G media days, with the impressive stat that no MSU opponent scored a touchdown on drives that started inside their own 20. Oregon's kicking game is solid if unspectacular; K Matt Wogan will handle both kicking and punting duties. They lost their top return man Bralon Addison to injury. I feel pretty good about this category; I predict a healthy Mike Sadler really gets his Heisman campaign rolling.

To win, MSU needs at least two and probably all three Stanford Model categories. For the reasons you've mentioned I don't think that point 1 is likely. Oregon also has some huge freaking defensive linemen: three guys who are at least 6'7, 280. The turnover battle will be a 50-50 proposition, as usual. MSU should win the field position battle though, so long as the Oregon return game is held in check.

Can "Spooky" Dantonio uncover Oregon's massive government conspiracy? Does this analogy make Pat Narduzzi the equivalent to Agent Scully? Is Phil Knight the Smoking Man? Ok, now I've certainly gone too far with the X-Files references. Trust no one, Heck.

HD: Haha, X-Files was/is one of those things that's much bigger with people about 4-8 years older than me, I think I was a bit too young during its televised run.

Also, I'm a huge baby-man about scary things.

Which is why I'm covering my eyes at the thought of Oregon's unanimously praised CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu potentially shutting down MSU's sure-fire receiving threat, Tony Lippett. Can Lippett use his 6'3'' height to exploit the 5'10'' Ekpre-Olomu? Can Cook avoid throwing a suicide ball or two in a tough road venue? Can the rest of MSU's inconsistent receiving group put it all together to punish a Oregon secondary that loses three of 4 starters?

Yesssss? I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb and say that MSU will have a good, though not great, day through the air against the Ducks. Oregon defensive end Tony Washington and his 7.5 sacks will require extra attention, but no one else but he and Ekpre-Olomu leap off the page today as particularly dangerous play-makers in the pass rush or secondary. The combination of losing so many returning starters and switching coordinators could create enough early season uncertainty for the Spartans to exploit. MSU's deep receiving corps and spread the ball around philosophy should be able to test the more inexperienced cogs of the Oregon pass defense while staying away from the known danger zones.

Now we might disagree on where the MSU offense will find the easiest going, but I think both of us agree that the Ducks offense vs the Spartans defense is the chess match everyone's eyes are set on. Possibly the defensive staff's toughest task yet, where do we start with this Oregon offense? The ridiculous offensive line? The seemingly endless stable of running backs averaging 6 yards a carry? The curiously decimated and young receiving group? Or uh, the guy who could be the next #1 pick in the draft and Heisman trophy winner?

JT: Ah yes. This is where the X's and O's will come out. I'm excited.

The MSU defense has a couple natural advantages over most defenses when it comes to defending Oregon's offense. First, running a base defense without much personnel substitution will somewhat negate the matchup issues the hurry-up is trying to create. Second, per Bill Connelly, Oregon runs the ball on passing downs much more often than the national average; having three linebackers on the field in these situations will be helpful.

There's a really good breakdown of a vertical passing concept Oregon will likely use here. The basic idea is that Oregon will use medium-depth crossing routes to pull MSU safeties up in coverage, and then exploit the one-on-one coverage deep down the field.

If you asked Pat Narduzzi about this, he'd probably laugh. I mean, look at the degree of difficulty on that pass by Stanford. QB Kevin Hogan takes a hit, delivers a perfectly thrown ball, and Trae Waynes almost breaks it up, anyways. For an inexperienced receiving corps, that is a low-percentage play.

The true concern is Oregon's run game. Against Nebraska and Ohio State, MSU gave up 5.7 and 6.8 YPC, respectively. Those two rushing offenses are likely the most similar to Oregon's; lots of zone-read behind a very good offensive line. These offenses were able to use the aggression of the MSU linebackers to their advantage. For instance, in this play (should start at 1:43:11) by Ohio State, they use bubble screen action to pull Taiwan Jones to the sideline, and then the pulling guard fools Denicos Allen and Max Bullough into thinking it is a strongside run, leaving a huge lane for Jordan Hall on the weakside. Oregon is going to do stuff like this, except their athletes are probably even better.

What I'm saying is that Ed Davis, Darien Harris, and Taiwan Jones will be under a lot of pressure. Can they be as good as last year's linebacking corps?

HD: Under Dantonio, MSU has never had a player with 50 or more carries average more than 6 yards per carry. In 2013, Oregon had 4 such players. That's not fair.

C'mon, that's not fair.

De'Anthony Thomas, a devastating all-purpose standout, departs, but quarterback Marcus Mariota, who averaged a sack-adjusted 10.6 yards on 78 carries (guuuuuhhhhhhhhh), returns, alongside a one-two punch of running backs Byron Marshall (6.18 YPC on 168 carries) and Thomas Tyner (6.18 yards on 118 carries). These three gentlemen and whatever 4.4 40 yard dash marvel that Oregon is ready to suit up to replace Thomas in the slot, will run behind an offensive line which returns 4 starters, and the top back-up from last year, who average about 22 returning starts under their belt each.

Make no mistake, this is a tall task to slow down. Can the Spartans do it, as Stanford, Utah, and then really no one else could in 2013?

There's (some) hope to be found in the past.

Over the last four years, The Spartans have faced off against eleven top 20 rushing offenses in 12 different games. Out of those contests, the same number of opponents (four) have been held under 3.5 YPC as have surpassed 5 YPC, while the other 3 teams have been held to an absolutely acceptable average of between 4 and 5 yards. The concern is that when MSU is cut, they're cut deep: OSU, Nebraska, and Alabama ran for nearly 900 yards on MSU on about 120 carries. If Oregon hits 40 carries and 275 yards, it'll be all hands on deck and a healthy dose of good fortune to pull out the win.

Anything else? Care to make a prediction?

JT: The last thing: Oregon will be using scented tickets. Carl's Jr, really?

The paths to victory for MSU exist but they are marginal. Ultimately this seems like it'll be higher scoring than any 2013 MSU game, with both defenses being relatively young. Cook and Langford have big days but we end up with the same score as 2008 Cal in Berkeley: Oregon 38, MSU 31.

HD: Give me something a little lower scoring, even closer, and a little more

*takes huge gulp of green kool-aid, slams glass down onto table, glass shatters into razor-sharp shards, slashing into my palm. Ohgodohgodohgod. I gotta get to a hospital, I gotta get to a hospital right now. It's going to be fine, everything's going to be fine, the surgeon assures me as he puts me under. Hours later, I awake, hand heavily bandaged.*
"Doctor." I ask.
"Yes?"
"Doctor. Answer me straight."
"Of course."
"Will-" I regard my wrapped hand, "Will I be able to correctly predict big sporting contests?"
"Uh, I mean, there's no reason a hand injury should prevent you from-"
"Great! BECAUSE I COULDN'T EVER GET 'EM RIGHT BEFORE!"
"Whaaat are you-"
27-24 Michigan State.