As a Michigan State fan, it's a bit strange that the Spartans are going into a huge nonconference game and the opponent isn't Notre Dame. The fortunes of both the Michigan State and Oregon programs have risen dramatically in the past decade, and the winner of this game will be a frontrunner for a spot in the first ever College Football Playoff.
The Green and White will have a huge task in front of them. The Oregon offense was one of the best, if not the best, offenses in the country when everyone was healthy last season. Quarterback Marcus Mariota has been an All-Pac 12 first team selection for the past two year. Junior running back Byron Marshall ran for more than 1,000 yards last season splitting time with other backs, and he'll be running behind a line that returned all its starters from last season.
The defense has its stars as well. Despite being removed with an ankle injury in the Ducks' rout over South Dakota, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will play against the Spartans, and most likely play like the first team All-American cornerback he was last season. Derrick Malone is another Duck to watch out for on the defensive side of the ball, making honorable mention all-Pac 12 in his first season as a starter.
So how can the Spartans get out of Eugene with its biggest nonconference regular season victory in years? Here are five keys to the game:
- Treat Ifo Ekpre-Olomu like other teams treat Trae Waynes. Waynes's stat line against Jacksonville State was a thing of beauty: No tackles, no pass breakups, no interceptions - nothing. He essentially had the football version of a trillion in basketball. JSU was intimidated by Waynes to the point where they threw almost nothing his way. Like JSU treated Waynes, MSU must treat Ekpre-Olomu, one of the finest defensive backs in college football. There's a definite drop off from Ekpre-Olomu to the other Duck defensive backs, and given the Spartans' relative riches at wide receiver, someone will be open. Connor Cook just has to find that man.
- Keep the first-string offensive line on the field as much as humanly possible. The Spartans got a huge boost when Mark Dantonio announced that Travis Jackson would play against Oregon. Jackson is one of the Spartans' three best offensive linemen, and even though the Ducks won't have the most intimidating defensive line the Green and White will face this season (that honor would most likely go to Ohio State), Jacksonville State showed an ability to get some penetration through the line at times last week. One of the positives of the JSU game was that Nick Hill look spry, and could serve as a good alternative to Jeremy Langford. The line just has to buy them enough time to find the hole.
- Maintain discipline in the front seven. As mentioned before, the Ducks returned their entire offensive line from last season (minus left tackle Tyler Johnstone, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in fall camp). Oregon runs a zone blocking scheme. We'll have a piece from Addicted to Quack writer David Piper later today that explains zone blocking in greater detail, but in short the offensive linemen work together to block certain areas of the field, in contrast to having the linemen put a helmet on a defensive player. There are five new starters in the Michigan State front seven, and most of those new starters work in the middle of the field. If MSU is to have success defending the run, Taiwan Jones and company are going to be smart about attacking the experienced Oregon line.
- Account for running back Byron Marshall in the passing game. Mariota lost all of his starting receivers from last season, but still put in a great performance against South Dakota, going 14 of 20 for 267 yards and three touchdowns, adding six rushes for 43 yards and another score. Of Mariota's 14 completions, six went to Marshall for 117 yards and two touchdowns. While Oregon could add more wrinkles to an already explosive offense against MSU, it's also a reasonable assumption that Mariota's going to be looking for Marshall early and often. Keeping an eye on Marshall when Mariota drops back has to be omnipresent on the Spartans' minds if they want to slow the Ducks down.
- Force field goals, because the Ducks are not good at putting the ball through the uprights beyond 40 yards. Matt Wogan was the presumptive starting kicker for Oregon this season, having made 7 of 9 field goals last season, the longest from 39 yards; Wogan missed his only attempt beyond 40 yards last year. While it was thought that Wogan would kick in last week's game, true freshman Aidan Schneider ended up taking all of Oregon's extra points, going 6-for-7 (one was blocked). If the Ducks need to attempt a field goal against Michigan State, it's either going to be a player who's never made a field goal beyond 40 yards in college, or a true freshman playing in his second ever game. It doesn't need saying, but what the heck, I'll say it anyway -- MSU needs to force Oregon into taking field goals as often as possible.