Michigan State vs. Oregon matchup breakdown

The No. 7 Michigan State Spartans are set to take to the road to take on the No. 3 Oregon Ducks this Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. ET and will be televised on FOX. Michigan State vs. Oregon should be one of the more intriguing match ups of the nonconference season and in preparation for the game, Oregon writer Nik Brownlee and Michigan State writer Ryan Squanda have traded notes to preview Saturday’s big game. Find their thoughts below with Brownlee detailing the Ducks and Squanda detailing the Spartans.

Oregon rushing offense

Oregon running back Byron Marshall.

Oregon running back Byron Marshall.

Consistency is the name of the game for Oregon on the ground. Last week the three Oregon running backs (Thomas Tyner, Byron Marshall and Royce Freeman) combined for 229 yards and two scores, add Marcus Mariota’s 43 yards and a score to the mix and Oregon looks as dangerous on the ground as ever. The Ducks have never really had a problem scoring points or moving the football, and this year’s trio of running backs looks as deadly as any group of ball carriers in the nation.

The design of Oregon’s offense relies on momentum and continuity, and disrupting either can lead to problems for the Ducks. Playing defense against Oregon isn’t easy, they have multiple weapons on the ground and the system puts their speed in open space. Last week Oregon ran the ball 38 times for 293 yards, but those numbers could have easily been higher if the starters had remained in the game. Oregon should aim to get around the same yardage on the ground against a tough MSU defense.

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Michigan State rushing defense

This has to be one of the more intriguing match ups of the game. There’s no doubt Oregon features one of the most explosive rushing games in the country. The Ducks are stacked with athletes and have a plethora of guys like Marshall, Tyner and Royce, who all like to get out on the edge and make things happen. The Spartans did do a good job of keeping an up-tempo Jacksonville State team at bay a week ago but there’s no question Oregon will be a completely different challenge from the Gamecocks. In the end of it all, whether or not the four new starters on the Michigan State front seven can keep up with the speed of a fresh Oregon team will be the biggest key to this game.

The Spartans were one of the top rushing defenses in the country a year ago, but they have had mixed results against scrambling quarterbacks in the past. How the Spartans contain Mariota when things break down will be something to look out for if you’re Michigan State.

 

Oregon passing offense

Marcus Mariota

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota

The Oregon offense goes as Marcus Mariota goes. The Heisman hopeful has proven that when healthy, he is arguable the best quarterback in the nation. Last week against South Dakota, Mariota came out throwing and seemed to be on page with his new receivers early. And after losing Josh Huff to the draft and Braylon Addison to injury, people began to question the Oregon receivers. Mariota silenced those doubters early by going 7-for-8 for 176 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter last week.

With Mariota at quarterback, the Ducks passing offense will no doubt be dangerous. The first game against South Dakota was a warm up, and the new receivers looked solid against the sub-par competition, but MSU is another animal defensively. The young and talented receivers for Oregon must be on the same page with Mariota early to get him in rhythm. Byron Marshall could step up and be the key factor in the passing game. Either catching passes out of the backfield or lining up in the slot, look for Marshall to duplicate what he did last week – 8 catches for 138 yards and 2 TDs. Mariota doesn’t make mistakes often, but miscommunication with inexperienced receivers could make things difficult on the Ducks signal caller.

Protecting the quarterback is always key in the passing game, and against Michigan State the Oregon offensive line will be tested early and often. Due to the fast paced and quick nature of the Oregon offense, Mariota doesn’t take many sacks. Keeping the quarterback upright and comfortable will be key for Oregon. If Mariota has time to make decisions and is on the same page with his receivers early, could be a long day for MSU through the air.

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Michigan State passing defense

Kurtis Drummond is the most veteran member of the No Fly Zone.

Senior safety Kurtis Drummond is the most veteran member of the No Fly Zone.

With three interceptions from the Michigan State secondary last week, so far the new look No Fly Zone looks pretty good. Cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond appear to have seamlessly stepped up into the leadership positions of the MSU secondary while the first year starters of both junior strong safety R.J. Williamson and sophomore cornerback Darian Hicks complete the squad. However, the next challenge for these guys is no easy task. With quarterback Marcus Mariota and his core of speedy receivers on slate for this week, the No Fly Zone will have to stay on their toes to defend one of the most efficient passers in the nation.

Quite possibly an easier way to contain the Ducks through the air is to get to Mariota before he even has time to throw. A good pass rush from defensive Shilique Calhoun and the rest of the talented Michigan State defenseive line could be something to watch for, while the rest of the MSU defense will likely have to focus on containing Oregon tailback Byron Marshall, who drifted out of the backfield last week to catch eight passes for 138 yards.

 

Michigan State rushing offense

big ten football

Jeremy Langford had a breakout season for the Spartans in 2013.

Much like the rest of the Michigan State offense, Jeremy Langford has also come a very long way in just one year. Last season Langford came out of nowhere to run for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. In the season opener against Jacksonville State, Langford did leave the game early with an ankle injury  but Dantonio said he should be good to go for Saturday. To spell Langford if he needs it, though, is fifth-year senior Nick Hill, who impressed many a week ago, running, juking and spinning his way to 42 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.

While a dinged up MSU offensive line could play a factor in the outcome of this game, it should also be taken note of that Oregon has gotten burned on the ground in the past, last year giving up over 160 yards per game, which included 274 yards on the ground in the a loss against Stanford a year ago, a team with a very similar offensive attack as the Spartans, and also the very same team MSU beat in the Rose Bowl. It Michigan State wants to win, their best bet on offense is to give the ball to Langford and run it down Oregon’s throat.

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Oregon rushing defense

This is where the game will be won or lost for the Ducks. It’s the reason the Ducks haven’t beat Stanford two years in a row. The Oregon front seven is the weak point on defense. When you have a defense built on speed, you often lose size. Against Stanford we saw them line up with as many big offensive lineman as possible, and simply run the Ducks over until they crossed the goal line. The Oregon linebackers are a solid group, but when the offensive line is able to block them, there is little the undersized speedsters can do. In last years Stanford game the leading tackler was Brian Jackson, a safety. This shows an inability for the Ducks linebackers to get off blocks and make tackles on a consistent basis. Oregon has the talent and speed up front but their lack of bulk is the killer, only 2-out-of-14 defensive lineman on the roster are listed over 300 pounds, which doesn’t bode well against teams committed to running the football.

The remedy for this problem? Stops. Oregon must get defensive stops early to give their offense chances to score. If they do, that will likely force Michigan State to throw more, which lightens the load for the front seven. The Oregon front seven needs to stuff the run and tackle in space, it’s as simple as that. The key for the Ducks defensively is getting off the field early in the game, because the more scoring opportunities you give the Ducks, the offense the more points they can put up. Defense is easier when your opponent is one dimensional, and if the Ducks can jump out to an early lead MSU will be forced to play catch up all night, and keeping up with the Ducks is no easy task.

 

Michigan State passing offense

A year ago, not much was known about Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook. Flash forward to this year and the redshirt junior is arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. A week ago, Cook played possibly his best half of football ever. And while it was only against Jacksonville State, completing 12 of 13 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns in one half of football is nothing to sneeze at.

Cook thrives in big games, and we saw it last year in both the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl, and Saturday’s game against Oregon is another one of those. Couple Cook’s improvement over the past year in addition to the improved play of receivers like Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings, Keith Mumphrey and Josiah Price, and the Michigan State passing offense is leaps and bounds ahead of where they were last year.

Still, despite their improvements in the past year or so, the Michigan State passing offense is probably the most underrated part of their game. When the bright lights are on Saturday night, expect Cook and company to surprise folks with their steadily improved efficiency through the air.

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Oregon passing defense

All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is the most important piece to Oregon's pass defense.

All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is the most important piece to Oregon’s pass defense.

If the Oregon Ducks defense has a strong point, it’s their secondary. Having All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu return for his senior season gives Oregon much needed leadership in the back end. Both safeties from last year are gone, as well as the other starting cornerback opposite Ifo, but the newcomers looked good in their tune up game against South Dakota. Due to Oregon’s explosive offense, the defense is usually playing with a lead which can make opposing teams throw more and become one dimensional – something the Ducks secondary thrives on.

One problem for the Ducks is tackling in the open field. Oregon’s defense is built on speed, especially in the back end, and that speed can lead to over pursuits and over aggression. Defensive coordinator Don Pellum stressed tacking in space all camp, but early against South Dakota the Ducks were still missing tackles. In fact, in 2013 three of the top five tacklers on the team were members of the secondary, a cause for concern heading into a game with a tough physical team. If the Oregon offense is able to get a lead early, the Ducks defense could look very good against a Spartans team forced to air it out. However, if the Ducks offense can’t give the defense a lead, Michigan State will likely focus on their rushing attack. Which means the secondary might be making more tackles than pass breakups.

 

Oregon special teams

The weakness for Oregon on special teams in recent years has been the kicker – just ask any Oregon fan. You cant blame the kicker for losses, but the numbers don’t lie. Oregon’s previous kicker went 13-23 for his career, and just 2-7 from kicks over 30 yards the past two seasons. With little to no kicking game outside the red zone, Oregon has to rely on risky 4th down conversions to sustain drives deep in opponent’s territory. The Ducks have no problem going for it on 4th down, but being able to kick a field goal every once in awhile would do the team well.

Where Oregon is dangerous on special teams is the return game. De’Anthony Thomas is now in the NFL, but our return game hasn’t missed a beat so far. Against South Dakota, true freshman Charles Nelson took a punt 50 yards for a TD on his first ever punt return, a good sign for the Ducks moving forward. Oregon is all about the big explosive play on offense, and that mindset goes for the return game as well.

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Michigan State special teams

Whenever there’s a team stacked with athletes like Oregon is, someone can always be a threat to take it deep on the kickoffs. A week ago kick off specialist Kevin Cronin and punter Mike Sadler did a good job pinning their opponents deep for Michigan State. Keep an eye on this facet of the game. Good field position is always big and the Spartans certainly don’t want to give the Ducks any shorter of a field.

As for the field goal kicking game, for the most part of his career at MSU, Michael Geiger has been very reliable, last year nailing 15 of 16 of his field goal attempts. Geiger did miss a 41-yard field goal try a week ago but expect him to be back to his usual form on Saturday.

 

Prediction

Brownlee

I see the game going two ways. Either it is a close thrilling affair reminiscent of Oregon vs. Stanford, or it is a blowout in favor of the Ducks. The keys for Oregon are first and foremost stopping the run. Like mentioned earlier, if the Ducks stop the Michigan State offense early, it could leave the Spartans playing a game of catch up I don’t believe they can win. But if the Oregon front seven doesn’t get stops, the Ducks will be in a heavyweight fight they haven’t proven they can win yet.

I believe this Oregon team is different, and I believe they will stop the run and give their offense the possessions it needs to put MSU in catch up mode.The Ducks prevail, 47-27.

Squanda

In one of the more intriguing games of the non conference part of the season, Michigan State vs. Oregon provides a match up of the best of the best. On one end you have Oregon’s blisteringly fast offensive attack and on the other end there’s Michigan State and their tough-nosed defense.

All eyes will likely be on Eugene, Oregon Saturday night for a game that I see ending in thrilling fashion. In the end, though, the Ducks will be just a tad too fast for the Michigan State defense and will eventually come out on top, winning both the battle of who can wear the fancier Nike jersey, as well as the game.
Oregon 28 Michigan State 24

 

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