Joe: Getting the thread started for the Oregon preview series. I know I referenced this in last year's preview, but seriously this video is ridiculous:
Austin: Don't show that video to the Original Mack, Mark Morrison. It might kill him. Also, I have a Lions' Joey Harrington jersey. It was a rough childhood.
Onto the preview! This game is obviously huge for both sides so I went a little deeper than last week. Let's start with our neat fact.
Neat Fact: Oregon Wide Receiver Devon Allen is fast. Like, really fast. Allen, also a member of the Oregon Men's Track and Field team, won the 2014 NCAA and U.S. 110-meter hurdles titles and is a contender for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Reminder to all Spartan Defensive Backs: STRETCH.
The Ducks offense enters 2015 looking a little different than last year's group. Among the departed are Heisman Winning Quarterback Marcus Mariota, starting Offensive Tackle Jake Fisher and All-American Center Hroniss Grasu. But, as always, there is plenty of firepower, especially at Running Back where Sophomore Royce Freeman and Junior Thomas Tyner will look to build upon their nearly 2,000 combined rushing yards from 2014. Versatile Senior Byron Marshall also accounted for nearly 400 yards on the ground while reeling in 74 catches for over 1,000 yards (insert obligatory "poor man's Percy Harvin" comp here).
There are concerns among the other pass-catchers, however. While the Ducks return Dwayne Stanford and get Bralon Addison back from an injury that cost him his 2014, Sophomore WR's Devon Allen and Darren Carrington - the team's second and third leading receivers from last year - are both question marks for the fall due to a ACL injury and suspension, respectively. On top of that, Senior TE Pharaoh Brown also has a balky knee that may cost him some time. Those injuries will, um, not help whomever steps into the Maui-sized shoes Mariota has left behind.
Junior QB Jeff Lockie served as the understudy last year but unfortunately for him, the succession plan isn't that simple. One of Oregon's biggest offseason additions was Eastern Washington graduate transfer QB Vernon Adams, who is expected to challenge for - and likely win - the starting job. For the last three seasons, Adams led a dynamic EWU offense, racking up 10,000+ passing yards and posting a nearly 4-to-1 TD/INT ratio (110/31). His track record and playmaking ability are a perfect fit for UO and, who knows, Duck fans may be saying "Marcus who?" by seasons end (nah, not really but he should be pretty good! That is, assuming he is in school come fall, but that's a whole 'nother thing). With injuries and a new QB at the helm, you can expect the ground attack to shoulder most of the load early on in the season.
Player to Know - RB Royce Freeman
Freeman is garnering plenty of pre-season Heisman talk and after watching him run all over the Pac-12 a year ago it should come as no surprise. Spartan fans will remember Freeman quite unpleasantly - the then-freshman scored two 4th Quarter touchdowns to cement an Oregon victory in last years contest between the two schools (It's ok if those runs still replay in your dreams, you're not alone).
The Ducks' high-octane offense is normally geared to distribute the ball - 10 players had 10+ catches and 3 players had over 110 carries in '14 - making it difficult for the opposing defenses to concentrate on taking away one player. However, with the amount of turnover the Ducks are facing, Offensive Coordinator Scott Frost may look to get his workhorse the ball on the ground more than usual. Either way, keeping him contained will be a major key for the Spartan Defense.
Toughest Matchup for MSU Defense - MSU Safeties and MLB's vs Read Option
The Read-Option attack has been a staple in Eugene since long before Mark Helfrich was the Head Coach. It's all about making the defense process tons of information at breakneck speed, preying on the mental aptitude of the personnel as much as it does the physical. A season ago, Pat Narduzzi's crew was up to the task in spurts but, ultimately, fatigue-induced mental mistakes - namely by the Safeties and LB's - killed them. MSU had limited experience against this type of team and it showed. That is not the case anymore, as games against Ohio State and Baylor gave MSU plenty of firsthand experience. After watching fatigue do his team in against OSU and Oregon, Dantonio and Co. began to employ hockey-style line changes in order to keep players fresh throughout the Cotton Bowl. How'd that 4th quarter go again? /swoon
Safeties, Montae Nicholson and RJ Williamson, and new MIKE LB, Riley Bullough, are critical in this matchup. Bullough is responsible for making pre-snap adjustments to slow down the run game while Nicholson and Williamson (there's a nickname in there somewhere) will be key to holding the passing game in check. If MSU wants a better outcome this year, the defense must limit their mistakes, especially up the middle.
Best Matchup for MSU Defense - MSU DL vs ORE OL
We all know the play. Third Quarter, Third-and-11, Spartans up 27-18. Mariota gets the snap but is pressured almost right away by a blitzing linebacker whom he somehow escapes. He scrambles to his left to find another Spartan defender who gets a piece of him but can't bring him down. Stumbling, he manages to pitch the ball to an open Freeman who converts the First Down. The Ducks would score the last 28 points of the game and win. Had Ed Davis or Lawrence Thomas been able to pull Mariota down in the backfield on that play this one could have ended much differently, but the defenders just couldn't finish Mariota off. Finish. That's the key word.
This may come as a shock to you, but MSU's Defensive Line is supposed to be pretty good. Getting pressure in the backfield won't be easy - Oregon's Quick Hitting style doesn't allow for that - but this group is talented enough to cause problems. On the edges, Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas must hold contain. The Ducks make popping the ball outside look like a walk in the park against a lot of very good teams. Forcing Freeman, Tyner and Co. inside will help stop those big plays from happening. Also, tackling Lockie/Adams would help.
Oregon's Offensive Line isn't a weakness, but there are kinks to work out -- having to replace two NFL draft picks in Grasu and Fisher chief among them. Senior OT Tyler Johnstone is back from injury after missing all of last year, along with returning starters Matt Pierson and Tyrell Crosby. Oregon will also benefit from another graduate transfer, as C Matt Hegarty comes over from Notre Dame. Playing this game early in the season is an advantage for an experienced Spartan group vs an Oregon line facing its first real test as a unit. All they have to do is finish.
A year ago, Oregon's defense was a good-not-great group. The National Championship run was more of a compliment to the historically potent offense than an ode to great defense. There was plenty of individual talent, but overall the group was not filled with playmakers. Not helping was the fact that Corner's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill and Safety Reggie Daniels all dealt with varying degrees of injuries throughout the year, severely cutting into both secondary depth and playmaking ability. The front seven was solid enough to do their jobs, but there was no Dion Jordan (he was good in college REMEMBER) to make plays off the edges that First-Rounder DE Arik Armstead and potential future First-Rounder DE DeForest Buckner were setting.
Defensive Coordinator, and noted sharp dresser, Don Pellum rolls into '15 facing some major turnover, namely in the secondary - along with Armstead, Ekpre-Olomu and Hill, S Erick Dargan, NG Sam Camp and LB Tony Washington also need to be replaced. In the front seven, however, experience is plentiful. Big-bodied Senior Tui Talia is expected to step in for Armstead while fellow Senior Alex Balducci remains the starter in the middle. There is also a chance all FOUR starters at Linebacker will be seniors. The question is can those experienced guys continue to grow and mature as playmakers. They're going to need to if they want to take the next step as a unit.
One of the benefits of having so many injuries in the secondary a year ago is that plenty of youngsters were able to see the field. Rising Sophomores Chris Seisay, Tyree Robinson and Juwaan Williams all saw action and are expected to get starter reps - or close to it - this fall. All three, also, check in at 6 feet plus and nearly 200 lbs, so, physically at least, they should be ready to go. Mentally, however, is a totally different question. That's where Daniels' return is massive for the Ducks. He immediately steps into a leadership role and, while he needs to scrape off some rust, should be a difference maker. Even with Daniels in the fold, Connor Cook has to like his matchups on the outside...more on that in a minute.
Player to Know - DE DeForest Buckner
At 6'7" 290, The Big Forest - as he shall henceforth be known - is a large man. In the Ducks 3 Man Front, Buckner acts as a small mountain holding down the edge and opening up lanes for attacking Linebackers. What separates Buckner is his ability to get into the backfield at his size (13.0 TFL's and 4.0 Sacks in '14). His position doesn't demand it but that element to his game sets him apart. He will face a tough test going up against a veteran Offensive Line which features Star Left Tackle and fellow large person Jack Conklin, in what could be a clash of two 2016 First Round picks.
Toughest Matchup for MSU Offense - MSU RBs vs Oregon Front Seven
One of the few question marks facing the Spartans at the moment is at Running Back, where Jeremy Langford's replacement has yet to emerge. With the recent news of Delton Williams' return to the program, the potential playing group has ballooned to four - Williams, Madre London, Gerald Holmes and Incoming Freshman Larry Scott - all of whom have their merits. Williams has actual game experience, Scott is as promising a recruit as Mark Dantonio has ever landed in East Lansing and Holmes and London had the full spring to get first team reps. Regardless of who starts, they will face an experienced Oregon front. The MSU Offensive Line should be able to open some creases, but the ball carriers need to find and hit them. The running game is crucial in this tilt. The longer MSU can keep the ball, the longer that dangerous UO offense stays on the sidelines.
Best Matchup for MSU Offense - Connor Cook vs Oregon DB's
As previously mentioned, the Ducks' secondary is an inexperienced lot. Sure, the youngsters got their feet wet a year ago, but they are still largely green. Unfortunately for them, Connor Cook is Green in color scheme only. Really, Cook was one missed pitch (the same pitch Mariota was able to complete) away from potentially pulling an upset against in Eugene a year ago. That was with Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery in tow, but it was also against an experienced Oregon Secondary.
This year, the experience level on both sides is considerably less. Seniors Macgarrett Kings and Aaron Burbridge have plenty of game reps but after that all the faces are pretty. The difference is Cook. #18 has consistently played his best football when the pressure is highest. With revenge on the line and a National Title in his sights, Cook will look to expose some youth and bring home an impressive win. He'll probably throw a Pick-Six - what's a big game without one of those! - but as long as the score ends up in the home teams' favor, I don't think anyone will mind.
Jeremy: Oregon is Jean Ralphio Saperstein. A whole lot of flash and swag stuck in a state not exactly known for cool. While Jean Ralphio deals with being the only guy in Pawnee who can fit into skinny jeans, Oregon has to fight the urge and political pressure from Portland to, well, wear skinny jeans as a football uniform.
Jean Ralphio Saperstein is a spoiled kid who lives a lavish lifestyle off of his money from his doctor father. Oregon has Phil Knight to bail it out when it does the sports version of running Entertainment 720 into the ground (otherwise known as a midweek loss to Rich Rod).
Jean Ralphio Saperstein has an awful sister named Mona Lisa. She somehow managed to be even more obnoxious than him. Oregon State doesn't seem obnoxious but hey their long time coach ran away from them to deal with the Nebraska fanbase. So, Oregon State has to be pretty damn miserable.
Jean Ralphio made his money the ole fashioned way (he got ran over by a Lexus). Oregon makes their money the new fashioned way, by letting Nike put you in whatever God awful creations they want.
Oregon is football Jean Ralphio.
Joe: So I thought I'd bring back the pain that was last year's Five Factors chart:
A couple interesting things to note: Oregon had passes of 70 and 64 yards, and runs of 38 and 40 yards. Those four plays accounted for 212 of the 491 yards compiled by Oregon. Needless to say, the #breakbutdontbend will need to fix those big plays.
MSU also didn't generate many turnover opportunities. I would think that would change with a non-Mariota quarterback.
One thing to remember: even with a loss, MSU has a shot at the playoff with an undefeated B1G run. That's highly unlikely. I chatted about this on the podcast with Chris, but there's also a small chance MSU could sneak into the playoff with a loss to OSU. But an Oregon win is necessary in that scenario.
I think MSU pulls this one off, despite the ridiculous skill position depth for Oregon, because they'll be breaking in a new QB.
MSU 41 - Oregon 30