Saturday afternoon in Eugene, Ore. will feature what could be the premier matchup of the college football regular season as No. 7 Michigan State travels to face the No. 3 Oregon Ducks.
It’s a battle of opposing conferences and a battle of contrasting playing styles, a matchup that is being pegged as a game of offense vs. defense. The Ducks are known for their high-powered, high-scoring offense while the Spartans are known for suffocating defense and shutting down opponents with their physical play.
Both head coach Mark Dantonio for MSU and head coach Mark Helfrich for Oregon gave strong compliments of each others teams and what they are capable. Dantonio referred to Oregon’s offense as “cutting edge” and Helfrich had some strong praise of his own for the Spartan’s defense.
“I think their defense is outstanding, they’ve been outstanding for the last few years,” Helfrich said. “They have a rock solid, one thing fits all defense. (They have) ways to blitz from the same look and ways to attack you on third down.”
So just how exactly will the Spartans be able to slow down one of the most prolific offenses in the country, one that is led by Heisman candidate quarterback Marcus Mariota? The Spartans should look no further than to the team they were able to defeat in the Rose Bowl, the Stanford Cardinal.
As dominant as the Ducks have been in the Pac 12 conference, the Cardinal have been the achilles heel for Oregon with their punishing style of play, specifically on the defensive front.
If the Spartans want any chance of winning, they’ll need to bring the same level of physicality that Stanford has brought in previous meetings with Oregon.
Oregon’s offense features an onslaught of sweeps, zone runs and quick hitters in the passing game. Much of what they do offensively is predicated by backfield motions and the offensive line opening lanes for the Duck’s speedy skill players to run through.
The first major key is disrupting the movement of the offensive line by getting a good push from the interior lineman. This means that defensive tackles Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath are going to have to play the game of their lives, because if they can disrupt Oregon’s guards, their offense generally stalls.
The next key is containing Mariota, which is no easy task. Not only was Mariota able to throw for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns last year, but he was also able to run for 715 yards and nine touchdowns. Keeping him in the pocket is essential if the Spartans plan on leaving Eugene with a win.
The Spartans have had mixed success with quarterbacks who are able to run like Mariota. Junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun made the comparison of Mariota to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, who the Spartans were able to slow down in the Big Ten championship game last season.
“He can take off with his legs or hand it off and plays will be made,” Calhoun said. “He’s similar to Braxton Miller because he can create off broken plays and we’ve seen that on film, so the biggest thing is staying in your gap and being disciplined.”
The last major key for the Spartans to have success on Saturday is tackling in the open field. If you have watched an Oregon football game in recent years, you’re aware of the lethal speed they possess on the offensive side of the ball.
If you miss an open field tackle against one of their players, it’s more than likely a touchdown. With as many wide receiver screens, bubble screens, read options and speed sweeps as they run, defenses find themselves having to make numerous amounts of tackles in space throughout the game.
Open field tackling has always been a strong point under Pat Narduzzi coached defenses, but the Spartans haven’t seen speed like the Ducks have. Despite it being a new challenge, they aren’t backing down.
“I feel like our defense can fly to the ball,” said senior linebacker Taiwan Jones. “We pride ourselves in gang tackling, where everybody flies to the ball and we get more than three helmets to the ball. So I feel like if we do that and play fast and hard, we’ll do fine in open field tackling.”