clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The 4 biggest battles in Michigan State vs. Oregon 2014

Oregon's efficiency offense vs. Michigan State's stingy defense. Tony Lippett vs. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. State's punting vs. Oregon's returns. There are too many key matchups to document for this week's game in Eugene, but we're going to try. (Saturday, 6:30 p.m. ET, FOX.)

The comparisons are obvious and unavoidable. Speedy, prolific Oregon takes on physically dominant Michigan State. Styles make fights. High-quality plus styles make heavyweight title fights.

For the last four years, Oregon and Stanford have faced off as top-15 opponents (No. 4 vs. No. 9 in 2010, No. 3 vs. No. 6 in 2011, No. 1 vs. No. 14 in 2012, and No. 2 vs. No. 6 in 2013). And while the narrative seamlessly shifted from "Oregon owns Stanford" to "Stanford owns Oregon" overnight in Eugene a couple of years ago, it has been must-watch television regardless.

The Ducks and Cardinal are still a couple of months from kicking off again, but Oregon gets practice against a doppelgänger of sorts. A really, really good doppelgänger. Michigan State, with its bruising defense and pro-style offense, visits Eugene on Saturday with the hopes of following Stanford's philosophical blueprint to success.

But let's go ahead and end the comparisons there. Stanford and Michigan State share a lot of the same philosophies for winning football games -- defense, field position, an offense that takes its time -- but the specifics on defense are different. And frankly, the matchups are appealing enough as is. We don't need to compare Michigan State to anybody else to make this a fascinating game.

1. Unstoppable force vs. immovable object

Byron Marshall. Steve Dykes, Getty

Key stat No. 1: Success Rate+ (2013)
Michigan State defense No. 1, Oregon offense No. 4

Key stat No. 2: Success Rate (last week)
Oregon 63.0 percent, Jacksonville State 31.0 percent

Michigan State's defense was a clogged drain in 2013. The Spartans simply didn't allow anything through.

With a perfect combination of experience, athleticism, and attitude, the Spartans dominated at every level of the defense. The line, which featured dominant ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush (combined: 21.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks) and veteran tackles Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover, wrecked shop. The linebacking corps of Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, and Taiwan Jones (combined: 33 tackles for loss) punished anybody who made it through the line. And the secondary, led by all-world cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safeties Kurtis Drummond, Isaiah Lewis, and R.J. Williamson, glued itself to you at the line of scrimmage and punished almost every attempt at passing over the front seven.

A solid portion of State's defensive backbone -- Reynolds and Hoover, Bullough and Allen, Dennard and Lewis -- is gone in 2014, which leads us to wonder whether State will field another top-five defense or whether the Spartans will slip a bit in 2014. Granted, the scheme is pretty much perfect for facing a modern college football offense, and a "slip" should still mean a top-15 performance.

But winning in Eugene requires a level of efficiency that few can pull off. Everything was rosy for the Spartans' defense against Jacksonville State's batch of FBS transfers last week (five sacks, three interceptions, five break-ups), but Oregon's just slightly better than JSU.

Oregon's offense has officially reached plug-and-play stage. The first batch of breakthrough performers, the first players of their kind at a given school, are always remembered fondly, and for the Ducks and their high-octane, Chip Kelly-inspired offense, that means there is always a special place in Duck lore for players like quarterback Dennis Dixon, running back LaMichael James, all-world utility man De'Anthony Thomas, etc. But college stars leave, and the good schools just plug in the next guy.

For Oregon, that means starring roles for players like junior Byron Marshall (eight receptions for 138 yards and eight carries for 90 yards against South Dakota), sophomore Thomas Tyner (11 carries for 64 yards), redshirt freshman Darren Carrington (four catches for 68 yards) and freshman Royce Freeman (10 carries for 75 yards). The new stars are no longer the first of their kind. They're just fast as hell.

They also have Marcus Mariota giving them the ball. Mariota was in the top tier of Heisman candidates last year until a late-season knee injury slowed him down, and his full-season stats were still ridiculous: 3,665 passing yards, a 31-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio, 856 pre-sack rushing yards, a sub-five percent sack rate. In just two quarters against South Dakota last week, he completed 70 percent of his passes at 19.1 yards per completion and rushed six times for 43 yards and a score.

Mariota's story is a unique one at the moment. He is universally considered one of the three or four best quarterbacks in the country, but he still has a redemption story to write. He sprained his MCL before last year's Stanford game, and while he still played better than most against Stanford (20-for-34 for 250 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions), he took three sacks, and some red zone failures led to an early deficit and the Ducks' demise.

He's completely healthy against Big Physical Defense No. 1 on the schedule. We'll see what damage he can do.

2. The length of the field

Key stat No. 3: Field Position Margin (2013)
Michigan State No. 1, Oregon No. 48

Key stat No. 4: Net Punting (last week)
Michigan State 32.8 (in four punts), South Dakota 28.8 (in six)

Michigan State was by far the best field position team in the country last season. Having the most efficient D helped, but so did having good kick, punt, and return teams. While the Sparty offense was a bit hit-or-miss, MSU was fantastic at using field position to generate hidden yardage. The Spartans' average starting field position was their 33.5 (fifth in the country) while opponents began at the 25.8 (fourth). On every change of possession on average, MSU picked up eight extra yards.

Oregon's own efficient offense was a field position strength, as was a strong return game. But between a defense that struggled against the run and a punt-and-kick crew that was below average at best, the Ducks were only a decent overall field position team.

Against their overmatched opponents last weekend, both Oregon and Michigan State dominated field position -- MSU was plus-9.0 yards per possession, Oregon plus-4.6. There was at least a momentary weak spot in State's punting game; three of Mike Sadler's four punts failed to travel more than 33 yards, though two were fair caught inside the JSU 20. And while primary Oregon punt return Ifo Ekpre-Olomu had two returns for zero yards, backup Charles Nelson returned one 50 yards for a touchdown.

If Oregon can break even against one of the best field-tilting teams in college football, it will put pressure on State's offense to match Oregon's.

3. The undercard

Key stat No. 5: Adjusted Line Yards (2013)
Oregon defense No. 75, Michigan State offense No. 77

Key stat No. 6: Connor Cook's completion rate (last week)
92.3 percent (12-for-13 for 285 yards and three touchdowns)

Yes, it was against Jacksonville State. But Cook's passing line would have been impressive in 11-on-0 action. He misfired just once, averaged 24 yards per completion, and might have had an even better night if not for two defensive pass interference penalties and a hit to the knees. Senior Tony Lippett, one of two big-play guys in the MSU passing game last year (along with the since-graduated Bennie Fowler), was unstoppable, catching passes for 11, 21, 64, and 71 yards and drawing one of the two flags.

Of course, this time around Ekpre-Olomu will be covering Lippett. Ekpre-Olomu is evidently nursing an ankle injury suffered last week, but if Lippett has another four catches for 167 yards, go ahead and mark him down for All-American honors.

To move the ball on Oregon, you should keep the ball on the ground. The Ducks struggled with efficiency at times last year but still had a top-30 pass rush and swallowed up most vertical passing. Unfortunately, Oregon ranked just 50th in Rushing S&P+. The goal of sacrificing size for speed backfired, as bigger opponents were able to grind out yardage between the tackles.

Michigan State wants to run the ball but hasn't always done so effectively. The Spartans employed a run-first offense last year but ranked just 103rd in Standard Downs S&P+. Cook was constantly forced to bail them out on passing downs, and he became pretty good at that as the season wore on, but Oregon's defensive speed takes over on such downs. The best chance to score on the Ducks is to avoid passing downs altogether. That Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill combined to average just 4.5 yards per carry against Jacksonville State last week isn't the most encouraging sign in the world.

The Michigan State run could be a movable force-vs.-resistible object matchup, but it should have as much effect on the game as the more marquee matchup that takes place when Oregon has the ball. Cook might be ready for a huge season, but you still don't want to count on him to make all of the plays. And if Cook isn't the most important player in this game, it might be Langford.

4. How big are the big plays?

Key Stat No. 7: IsoPPP+ (2013)
Oregon offense No. 5, Michigan State defense No. 74

Key Stat No. 8: 10-yard gains (last week)
Oregon 22 (in 70 plays), Jacksonville State 12 (in 62)

Michigan State basically dares you to make perfect plays, knowing that most college quarterbacks cannot. But Mariota can, at least if he's got the help.

The big plays Michigan State allowed last year were awfully big. They barely allowed any, but if the dam breaks for Oregon, the simple fact that the Spartans keep so many bodies near the line of scrimmage could make for a huge gain. Even JSU, in the middle of a total blowout loss, managed 12 gains of more than 10 yards. Only four of them came in the first half when State's starters were all on the field, but if Oregon manages 12 of those gains, can State keep up? And if Oregon finds some cracks and gets 15 or more of those plays, the Spartans are in serious trouble.

Oregon is a bit raw in the skill positions. Thanks to Bralon Addison's knee injury, the Ducks return only one player who caught more than 16 passes last year (Keanon Lowe, who had all of 18), and the leading receivers last week were a running back/slot receiver (Marshall, playing the "slash" role performed so well by De'Anthony Thomas in recent years) and a redshirt freshman (Carrington). The two combined for nearly half of last week's receptions.

You can beat State occasionally with precision, but inexperience could cost the Ducks precision points. They will get a few big plays to flip the field and put points on the board, but will they get enough?

The stakes

This might be my favorite September game. The matchups are fascinating, and the stakes are ridiculously high. The loser of this game will in no way be eliminated from contention for the College Football Playoff (especially if it's Oregon, with plenty of tough games still to come), but the winner will have an awfully big feather in its cap awfully early in the year. If the winner is undefeated when the first Playoff committee rankings come out, strength of schedule might give either a chance at the No. 1 ranking.

This is huge. One of FBS' most entertaining offenses goes up against what might be the most entertaining defense, while two units with something to prove (and a quarterback who seemed to prove quite a bit last week) face off. This game represents the next step for Sparty, and it represents a step that has tripped Oregon up a couple of times recently. In college football's first Playoff year, this one should have quite a playoff vibe.