Last Year's Five Factors
In summary, Oregon was crazy explosive, did a great job finishing drives, and got a little turnover luck.
That 5.3 yards per rush for Oregon is actually pretty good; Oregon averaged 8.8 yards per carry, sack-adjusted, in 2014.
When Oregon Has the Ball
Oregon's Rushing Offense
Oregon lost their three most experienced offensive linemen in the offseason, and was 35th nationally in offensive line starts returning, per Phil Steele. That's actually not bad for a line that topped the nation last year in terms of adjusted line yards (a Bill Connelly offensive line metric). This is one offensive line that MSU might not be able to simply overpower.
The backfield for Oregon is terrifying, however. Running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner combined for nearly 2000 yards on 365 carries. For those of you that are terrifyingly fast at math, that's more than 5 yards per carry. Interestingly, though, Freeman and Tyner weren't particularly adept at breaking good opportunities into huge plays; they averaged 4.4 and 3.4 highlight yards per opportunity, respectively (a metric for yards gained once the OL has done it's job. For reference, Jeremy Langford averaged 5.4). Anyways, the big play runners were former QB Marcus Mariota and RB/WR hybrid Byron Marshall. That's pretty consistent with what happened in the MSU-UO game last year.
It'll be interesting to see how linebackers are rotated in for MSU. Last year, Mylan Hicks got the start at STAR. I'm guessing there will be a regular rotation at SAM between Jon Reschke and Chris Frey, but will Riley Bullough ever come off of the field?
Also, considering the apparent lack of quarterback depth, will Oregon let Vernon Adams take a lot of hits on read-option?
I'm confident that MSU won't allow 500 yards rushing to Oregon like Eastern Washington did last week. But keeping Oregon to something like the 150 yards they achieved last year (sack-adjusted) is key.
Oregon's Passing Offense
This is the big question, in my mind. Last year Mariota was simply too effective, averaging 9.5 yards per pass with three touchdowns, two on plays of 70 and 64 yards, and no interceptions. This year's secondary will almost certainly be playing more conservatively than last year's, if the game against WMU was any indication.
Last year, Oregon's offensive line was just middling in terms of sack rate at 41st nationally. The MSU pass rush should (and needs to) get to graduate transfer QB Vernon Adams quickly. Quick open letter to the MSU defensive line: just tackle Vernon Adams when you get your hands on him, OK?
Oregon returns their top four receivers from last year, and they get back one of their leading receivers that missed all of 2014 in Bralon Addison. Vayante Copeland and Demetrious Cox will have their hands full.
When MSU Has the Ball
MSU's Rushing Offense
Oregon returns four of their starting front seven (a 3-4 scheme) from 2014, which was a middling unit in stopping the run at 62nd nationally in yards per game. Last week, they allowed 3.9 sack-adjusted yards per carry to Eastern Washington. Though terrific defensive end DeForest Buckner returns, the MSU offensive line and running backs group will have to improve upon the 4.1 yards per carry from last year. One thing I will say is that Dave Warner does a great job at staying patient late in games and continues to run the ball, which is something that almost gave me a heart attack against Baylor.
Of L.J. Scott, Madre London, and Gerald Holmes, I bet Dantonio settles on two guys during this game and sticks with them. My guess is that those two would be London and Scott.
MSU's Passing Offense
Oregon lost three of their four starters in the secondary, including both guys who had picks last year (CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and S Erick Dargan) as well as CB Troy Hill, who was terrific against MSU last year. This is where EWU made some hay last week, averaging 7.7 sack-adjusted yards per attempt.
Along the defensive line, Oregon was below-average in terms of sack rate, at 75th nationally. Connor Cook should have some time.
And look, Cook simply has to be more consistent than he was last week. There were some times against Western when the receivers didn't get as much separation as you'd like, but ultimately Connor continues to be struggle with his footwork and vision. Last year, after a bad early interception, Cook largely turned things around with 29-for-47 passing and 343 yards, a fair amount of which came in garbage time. Still, he needs to have a better day than he did a year ago.
Conclusions and Prediction
I found this quote particularly pertinent from Mark Dantonio's press conference this weekend:
Q: The theory is you don't want to get into a shootout with a team like Oregon. Sounds like you guys aren't afraid of getting into a shootout with anybody?
Dantonio: Well, sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do. Bottom line at the end of the game is do you win or do you lose? So whether we win 10-9 or 40-39 really makes no difference. They're all going to count one, pretty much like I said last weekend. But you've got to play this as a team game. We can't just put our defense out there and say, okay, day one, and the offense lost. That's why we've always tried to collectively say together, what are we going to do? We've got to offset each other.
I like to think about MSU's ascension to national relevance in terms of a smooth, gradual ascent. It's easier that way; forget the failures and just watch this video.
But in the words of Jules Winnfield, that shit's not the truth. There have been plenty of setbacks in terms of games, seasons, players, and coaches. Pat Narduzzi had to figure the defense out after 2009. The offense had to be saved by Dave Warner and Connor Cook in 2013. We had to get the Michigan monkey off of our collective back after the 2007 game. There were the losses to Iowa in 2009, and in the Big Ten Championship to Wisconsin in 2011. Until the Outback Bowl win against Georgia, Dantonio had lost four straight bowl games. Last year's games against Ohio State and Oregon fall into that category. The break-but-don't-bend failed, and needed to be recalibrated. And this recalibration got the intended result in the Cotton Bowl.
By many metrics, Western had a more efficient, though less explosive, game last week against MSU than Oregon had against MSU in 2014. I'm probably overly obsessed with that fact, but I think it must show the basic wager than Dantonio is making in 2015: make a defensive trade-off to allow opponents more efficiency but fewer big plays, and assume that the offense will make up the difference.
The MSU editions in 2012 and early 2013 had to win games 10-9, while this one might have to win 40-39 games.
Does that evolution complete quickly enough to overcome the latest barrier to enhanced national relevance for MSU? I think so.
MSU 45-Oregon 42