It's easy to overlook a few key themes here. No. 7 Michigan State's offense has improved under quarterback Connor Cook over the last calendar year, and No. 3 Oregon's replacing longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
Michigan State has built quite the defensive tradition over the last few years, highlighted by a brilliant 2013 campaign that saw them come within a few questionable pass interference calls of playing Florida State for the national championship.
The Spartans' defense is perfectly designed to handle college offenses, challenging opponents to beat them via routes and plays that most amateur players aren't proficient at executing. It's a fearsome unit that returns enough pieces from the 2013 crew that it's certain to be very good, if not quite as excellent.
However, it's worth noting that Michigan State's rise to prominence on defense has been keyed by victories over more traditional offenses. They faced only one packaged-play-wielding, lightning-tempo offense in 2013, and that was the Indiana Hoosiers.
The others? Pro-style Stanford, run option-heavy Ohio State, hopeless Michigan, and the rest of the Big Ten slate. The only team that had the athletes and scheme to approach the stresses Oregon will place on coordinator Pat Narduzzi's beloved base defense was Notre Dame, whose quarterback was unable to punish the Spartans, but who did draw the needed flags (justly or otherwise) to earn precious scoring chances and beat MSU -- back when MSU didn't have an offense.
The key is understanding where the stress points are in the Spartan defense.
Spartan phalanx: Deferred stress points
Narduzzi's defense applies the space-backer approach to playing spread offenses, meaning that it plays quick outside linebackers who can run, play blocks, and make tackles from sideline to sideline. This is rather than putting extra defensive backs on the field, save for in their passing-downs delta package, when they add a big nickel in place of a defensive tackle.
This has three big implications for their defense. One is that their linebackers are free to play the run aggressively, knowing that the safeties will pick up anything they miss. Michigan State also plays its safeties fairly close, so the team can get a lot of defenders to the ball in an awful hurry on any runs or quick passes.
However, it also means that their approach to covering vertical routes by slot receivers depends on their safeties being able to run with receivers and play them in man-to-man coverage down the field.
Anything short by the slot receivers (H and Y) is going to be matched by the outside linebackers, while anything going deep or outside will draw the help of the safeties.
Here's where things get interesting. What if the offense likes to throw vertical routes at the safeties? What if they faced something like Baylor's play-action passing game with vertical option routes?
Now you have deep safeties picking up receivers running at a full sprint with open grass all around. The linebackers have to try and protect the safeties by channeling them upfield, but that's not possible on play-action plays.
Covering these routes can become very difficult if the slot receiver is a capable burner:
There's a reason that Michigan State prefers to play press man coverage with their corners. It's hard to play off coverage in space without getting burned on double moves or receivers who can change gears in the open field, but that's what their safeties are asked to do.
What makes this more interesting is that the selling point of the Michigan State defense is how they can get almost everyone in the box, with both safeties potentially filling aggressively on run reads. Since they are active run support players, the Spartans use the the 6'1, 202-pound Kurtis Drummond and 6', 214-pound RJ Williamson at these positions.
In short, Michigan State throttles offenses by deferring risk to the back end of their defense. This means accepting the occasional big play for the sake of stuffing everything else.
Can they plug leaks in the dam against an aggressive spread offense?
How the Flying V attacks Sparty's D
The temptation most teams have against this defense is to throw fade routes against the corners on the sidelines, which is exactly what they want you to attempt. These throws have an exceptionally low hit rate and simply aren't going to connect often enough to deter the Spartans from playing their aggressive defense.
So instead, expect Oregon to attack the Spartans in a few different ways. One is with play-action and vertical bombs by Marcus Mariota to deep receivers matched up against safeties in space:
This is an aggressive brand of Y-sail that relies on the outside receiver getting off press coverage to run a post. If he can, the free safety has to go from covering a deep out to flipping his hips and running with it -- a dubious assignment -- or the corner has to be able to play the post without help.
Deep switch routes like this are very hard for cover 4 (Michigan State's preferred coverage, in which each of the four defensive backs is responsible for a potential vertical route) defensive backs to handle. Another issue is Mariota's ability to buy time. If the Spartan line can't pressure Mariota and he's able to dance around before flinging a deep bomb, it's only a matter of time before the Spartan safeties blow an assignment or just get beat.
The play-action game combined with Mariota's speed and arm strength has to be a major concern for Narduzzi and defense-minded head coach Mark Dantonio. That said, most offensive coaches are not aggressive enough to call all-or-nothing deep shots regularly throughout a game, waiting for the percentages to bail them out, even if the Spartans' own plodding offensive pace makes it a reasonable bet.
There is another concern and a check within the Spartan defensive system against teams that want to attack safeties all day. The dreaded Narduzzi zone blitz package including such terrors as the double a-gap blitz.
Narduzzi has several varieties, but it's essentially a six-man zone pressure that covers up hot reads with two underneath defenders. It dares a QB to find targets outside despite pressure right at his face.
Oregon has two answers for this blitz. One is quick screens and passes in the flats to former high school track star Byron Marshall. Dropping five defenders into pass coverage and asking them to corral him in space is not a great bet for the Spartans.
Another is Mariota's arm strength and mobility, which could allow him to buy time and hit receivers outside the hash marks, right where Narduzzi is betting you can't hurt him. If Mariota and Oregon's team speed can negate the threat of the Spartans' bigger blitzes, then the Ducks can create a scenario in which they have time to attack Sparty deep.
The Ducks will also need to have some plans of action to make small gains and move the chains. One option is with quick game concepts that target the softer spots of Spartan coverage, like quick outs:
The Spartan linebackers are not in position to contest these routes if thrown with good timing, although you can be sure they'll be quick to make the tackle after the catch. If the outside receivers can beat press coverage with post routes or other deeper patterns and require some attention from the safeties, then the out becomes dangerous for the yards-after-catch opportunities.
Ultimately, the Ducks have to be able to run the ball some, as that's their bread and butter. The easiest way to do that will be with pop pass plays and zone read schemes that spread out the Spartan defense and prevent it from homing in on the ball. One example would be a zone read play from their 21 personnel grouping with a pop route by the tight end:
Here's how it works. Byron Marshall (H) motions to the field before the snap. If the sam linebacker doesn't chase him, then immediately after the snap, Mariota turns and hits Marshall on the run.
If the sam does give chase, then Mariota can read the play of the free safety covering the tight end, who's running a quick route over the middle. Mariota can either hand off or throw the pop pass.
Now you have the Spartans fragmented and unable to rally to the ball with numbers as they are accustomed to. Any attempt to run the ball that doesn't include option reads or misdirection will simply be swarmed by defenders, since the Spartans play so close to the box, so this is the best course of action.
All in all, the Michigan State defense is one of the toughest shells to crack in all of college football. By virtue of having speedy weapons like Marshall, a veteran line, and the rare combination of both explosive running and cannon arm strength at QB, Oregon has the means to divide and conquer. So Mariota and co. will accomplish the impossible and get some points on the board.
Then they'll just have to hope that Connor Cook isn't an equally big factor in the final outcome.