MSU Football: Keys to beating Oregon

Michigan State fans won’t have to wait long to find out if the Spartans are a legitimate National Title contender in 2014. MSU travels to Eugene to face Oregon week two in what will likely be a matchup of top-ten teams.

Early odds have Michigan State as two-touchdown underdogs, which is understandable considering the amount of talent departed from last years team and the fact the game is going to be played in Autzen Stadium. That being said, I don’t expect this game to be a blowout by any means.

Michigan State has plenty of talent returning, especially on the offensive side of the ball including quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford. The Spartans have a chance to make a statement on a national stage early in the year by getting a win in Autzen.

Here are three keys for Michigan State if it hopes to pull off the upset against the Ducks in week two.

Michigan State will look to slow down Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota

Michigan State will look to slow down Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota


This definitely falls into the category of “easier said than done”. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was the frontrunner for the Heisman trophy last season before missing time with an injury, so he is not an easy guy to gameplan for.

Over the past few seasons the one kryptonite of the Michigan State defense has been mobile quarterbacks. The likes of Taylor Martinez and Braxton Miller have had a lot of success against the Spartan defense, and Mariota is more talented than either of them. This doesn’t seem to be a great matchup for MSU, but if you look at Mariota’s few weaknesses there is one thing than can be exploited.

In the few games that Mariota didn’t have a lot of success last season there was one common theme–he was getting pressured on almost every snap. Coincidentally, Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi loves to use complex bitzes to try and get to the quarterback.

If MSU can dominate the line of scrimmage and constantly keep Mariota uncomfortable, it has a good chance of slowing down the Ducks high flying offense.


While this might seem like a given considering how fast Oregon likes to play and that the Ducks rarely win the time of possession battle, it is still vitally important for MSU.

Oregon is going to play quickly on offense whether it is scoring or not; Michigan State can’t control that. What MSU can control is the amount of time it possesses the ball. The longer Connor Cook and the Michigan State offense are on the field, the less opportunities Marcus Mariota will have for the Ducks.

In 2013, the Spartans tied for second in the country in average time of possession so they are no stranger to controlling the ball. Michigan State will need to establish the run game and maintain drives if it hopes to stay in the game against the Ducks.


Michigan State hasn’t allowed a team to exceed 30 points in over two seasons. That streak will most likely end in Eugene, but that doesn’t mean MSU can’t win. The coaching staff just can’t panic if Oregon starts putting up points quickly.

The Spartan offense will be improved in 2014, but it isn’t built to throw the ball 50-60 times a game. What this means is that even if Oregon scores a few early touchdowns, MSU needs to stick to its gameplan and trust that it’s defense will start getting stops. If Connor Cook starts passing on first and second down every drive once Oregon puts up a few points Michigan State will be in trouble.

Maybe the young Spartan defense will shock the world and hold Oregon to 17 points, but that scenario seems extremely unlikely. MSU needs to have a plan in place in case Oregon goes up a few scores, and that plan needs to include Jeremy Langford and the Spartan’s patented power run game.

If the Spartans get behind early and abandon the run it could be a long night in Eugene for the Spartan faithful. On the other hand, if the Spartans stick to the gameplan, contain Mariota and control the ball there could be an early season upset in Eugene.

Related Articles: MSU Football: Biggest questions going into 2014 season
MSU Football: Secondary preview

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  • draynay

    The Oregon defense is horrible and their front 7 on defense is weak at best. As injuries occur this will become an even bigger problem because of the lack of depth. Oregon is not a contender for anything… this is the most over hyped team in college football. Michigan State wins this one with ease.

  • SpartansWill

    I have watched a few Oregon games from last year, as well as several Mariota highlight reels. I have come to a lot of conclusions. Mariota is in fact the real deal; I don’t know if he’s a pro-bowl QB, but he’s definitely NFL quality on the ground and in the air. What’s more is that Oregon’s offensive scheme is built for a guy like Mariota. Being an MSU fan, I am familiar with MSU’s offense, defense, special teams, and players. I am going off of previous season’s performance, and by the spring game. I came away extremely impressed with MSU’s defense, and I actually believe MSU will be okay at Linebacker regardless if it’s Jones or Harris, or whomever in the middle. All of the starters, barring injuries, will have sufficient experience. I came away really impressed with the secondary and the defensive line during that game. The only question mark I have is the offensive line, and I think MSU will be fine there as well. Finally, MSU’s scheme is about as good as defensive schemes get. Between the reads, the positioning, blitz packages, and press-quarters coverage, if there ever was a defensive scheme that could slow a juggernaut, this is it. Back to Oregon, They have some good defensive backs, and some decent player here or there, but they won’t be the toughest defense MSU faces this coming season. I will say I am not entirely sold on Oregon’s offensive line, but at the same time, Oregon’s scheme helps cover for that. Oregon also has a proven running back. He will also be a different style of back than MSU is used to, which without a good game plan could present challenges. There is a lot in my opinion being missed with Oregon’s receivers. They return very little this season in this department. It also isn’t a bare cupboards situation ala MSU’s 2012 corps. Many opinions one way or the other are being based on the faulty assumption that Oregon’s wide receiver group is representative of either last season’s group, or a completely inexperienced group, although there are less opinions being based on the latter. They have a couple decent guys returning, and they do have some serious potential waiting in the wings. That being said they aren’t the group that was so good last season. Finally, I would like to discuss special teams briefly. I’m going to go ahead and give Oregon the advantage in returns, both punt/kick. MSU has the clear advantage in punting, and a more slight advantage in field goal kicking, although since both fg kickers are young it’s hard to tell. I am unsure of who will be MSU’s kick off guy, Oregon fg kicker has done a decent job on kick offs. I think a great debate would be about which coaching staff is truly better at what, by the way. So there’s my assessment of the teams.
    So, onto how that all works. First, as I said Mariota is a great quarterback, and MSU’s defense will be elite. Maybe not the best defense in FBS like last season, but elite none the less. I think it starts with the guys up front. Oregon thrives, in my opinion on catching guys out of position. If a defender is a step out of position Mariota or somebody else is going to gash you for 15 or more yards, typically more. The linemen will have to simultaneously put pressure on Mariota while staying in position to stop the bleeding on the ground. This is especially true for the DE’s. MSU has high level DE’s and a solid line. I mentioned I thought Oregon’s is suspect – I saw a lot of penetration in the games I watched. Mariota out ran guys and found receivers downfield to make incredible plays consistently. The speed of Oregon’s offense, the job the D-line will have to do, and the playmaking ability of Mariota make this match up a draw in my opinion, despite any advantage MSU may have on the actual players. Linebackers will be important. This is where inexperience or bad reads could really torch MSU. Getting past a linebacker is likely to result in big yardage. Guys will have to stay assignment sound, just like the D-line. The Blitzes will have to be cold and calculated, and the linebackers will have to trust the secondary and D-line in order to not get gashed on the ground. I believe Oregon may have an advantage there, it will depend a lot on our fresh MLB’s ability to make reads and get guys into position. MSU’s unit would have to play very well to out play Oregon on this one. When it comes to the defensive backs, I really think MSU has an advantage over Oregon’s passing game. MSU’s defense forces teams to make statistically difficult throws consistently in order to win in the air. Unfortunately Mariota may just be the guy to make those throws, especially if he can draw the defensive backs off their assignments on the ground, only to beat them in the air. I will say that the run support provided by the safeties could limit the damage Oregon can do on the ground, however. Oregon’s wide receivers are a bit of a mystery at this point. It’s bad in terms that MSU will have less time to study up on the guys who emerge. The good news is that they probably aren’t as good as last year’s crew. I think that MSU’s coverage scheme and talent level at DB will be huge, and an advantage for MSU. Keeping Mariota to a 5 or 10 yard run instead of throwing a home run ball would be a huge deal, and playing a good game against the pass will make the line and run support’s job far easier.
    When it comes to offense, MSU will present the Oregon defense with a style it doesn’t seem to handle well. MSU will be able to control the ball, and will put some points on the board. I imagine a run heavy game plan would work well for MSU here. I think MSU will have to do enough through the air to get the points they need, though, and we’ll see how that works out. On the ground with Oregon’s line and run support, MSU has a big advantage. In the air, not so much, as Oregon does have good defensive backs. Passing yards and scores won’t come easy. Shortening the game too much could play into Oregon’s hands as well. I do think MSU has an overall advantage offensively, though. It will be up to MSU to execute how it needs to in order to leverage that to the best of their ability. Finally, on special teams, MSU may give Oregon worse starting position than they are used to. This may or may not end up being a factor, but if MSU wants to walk out with a victory they should hope it is. Otherwise, I don’t see a huge advantage in field goal kicking, and Oregon definitely will get better field position on returns than MSU is used to. Flipping the field and keeping it flipped will be very important in my opinion. I am going to go ahead and give Oregon a slight advantage there, despite MSU’s solid kicking and amazing punting. I also want to point out that coaching will be a factor, and I’ll give the advantage to MSU on this one, albeit slightly. I will say I think it’s easier to try to stop something in football via x’s and o’s than it is to accomplish something in football, at least at the college level, via x’s and o’s.
    So, to sum it up, I think the game will be really close. If MSU stays assignment sound on defense, controls the tempo on offense, and scores enough points, I think they will walk out with a small victory. The fact it’s at Oregon could be a factor, and MSU will have to play well enough work past that built in advantage. I see it being 31-28 either way. I have a feeling MSU will do it and surprise everybody, but I won’t be shocked by a loss of 6 points or less. This will really be the immovable object versus the irresistible force. The best defensive staff in college football against one of the best offensive staffs. I think it will live up to everyone’s expectations, and it will be an instant classic. In my opinion MSU will control the clock, make fewer mistakes, and put up just enough points to eek out a win that will still be in doubt in the final seconds. Just my thoughts, but I think I’m making educated guesses / observations here. Spartans Will.

  • Trevor Westerdahl

    Well… it is a plan. Its not going to work, but it is a plan.