Michigan State football: What Oregon game means for Spartans

You don’t have to beat the fact into the mind of Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio that the game between his No. 7 Spartans and No. 3 Oregon Ducks this weekend is huge.

He knows.

“It’s an exciting week for us this week,” Dantonio said. “A lot of things that you are going to experience this week whether as a coach or as a player, these are things that you anticipate when you go play college football: Big football game on national TV. I think we embrace those situations. We’ve played in big games before, so that’s not new to us.”

But before MSU hits the gridiron to take on the Ducks Saturday night in Eugene (kickoff at 6:30 p.m. ET on FOX), it’s sometimes hard to believe the wonders Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi have done with this Michigan State football program ever since they took over following the 2006 season. In the past seven years, they’ve taken the program from being synonymous with the acronym S.O.S (Same Old Spartans) to being a hard-nosed defensive-minded juggernaut.

It hasn’t always been easy for the Spartans. But they’ve scratched and clawed away at everything they have, and after a 13-1 Big Ten and Rose Bowl Championship season, the Spartans are now a few years of sustained excellence away from catapulting themselves onto the same level as the nation’s elite – and a victory on Saturday would be huge for them.

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MSU head football coach Mark Dantonio has been working towards games like this ever since he came to East Lansing.

“This has been a progression for us, I think,” Dantonio said. “If you look at our football program right now from when we’ve come in 2007, it was about trying to get to these moments where you have an opportunity to play across the nation and it has a sort of prominence to it or a prestige to it at this point. We’ll look forward to that opportunity.”

For Dantonio, throughout much of this past offseason he’s stressed the importance of handling success and continuing to get better, even when you reach the top of the mountain, and how the Spartans perform on Saturday will be a testament to just that.

Simply put, though, Saturday’s contest is a battle of elite systems: the high powered, up-tempo offensive onslaught of the Ducks versus the efficient defense of the Spartans, making the matchup one of the most intriguing one’s of college football’s 2014 non-conference season.

While Ducks have put points up on just about everyone in the past, they have yet to face the a defense like Michigan State’s. At the same time, though, it would also be true to say that this stout Spartan defense has yet to see an offense like Oregon’s.

And while Michigan State did hold an up-tempo Jacksonville State team to just seven points last week, there’s no doubt Oregon will be a completely different test. Whether or not the Spartans can keep up with the pace of Oregon’s offense will ultimately decide the outcome of the game.

“It’s always mental,” MSU linebacker Taiwan Jones said of the challenge of hanging with up-tempo offenses. “If you can do it mentally, physically it will come. If it’s too fast for you and you feel sorry for yourself, that’s not mindset that we want of the defense. Even if we’re tired, we always emphasize; give it one more play.”

So therein lies the key. If Michigan State can keep up, they’ll have a good shot to win. However, there’s still the notion out there that the Spartans can’t come to play on the big stage, that notion quickly brushed aside by Dantonio at his press conference on Tuesday, arguing that MSU has been here before, having played in both the Big Ten Championship game and the Rose Bowl a year ago.

And speaking of last season, with the way the Spartans have been climbing the rungs of college football’s ladder of success over the past few years, this game likely couldn’t come at a more perfect time. And while the Spartans undoubtedly remain the underdog for this weekend’s contest, the rest of the country may soon hop on board with the Spartans – who will not only be playing for themselves on Saturday, but also for the rest of the Big Ten.

Perhaps a player who no more perfectly embodies this theme of under-the-radar improvement is MSU quarterback Connor Cook. A year ago, hardly anyone had ever heard of Cook. Flash forward to today and Cook has transcended himself into arguably one of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks. But when asked if he relishes heading into matchups with top quarterbacks on the other side like Oregon’s Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota, Cook said it’s something he doesn’t pay any attention to.

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Connor Cook and the rest of the Michigan State Spartans aren’t phased by Oregon’s talent.

“I’m just concerned on focusing on me and knowing my assignments, knowing our game plan going into this game and focusing on executing and doing whatever I possibly can to lead the Spartans to victory,” Cook said. “Obviously it’s College Gameday, it’s going to be a big time environment. Obviously it’s going to be fun playing against Oregon, playing against a great quarterback in Mariota, but really the thing that i just focus on is things I need to worry about as a quarterback… and that’s just doing whatever I can to help this team win.”

Still, as MSU continues to climb the ladder, it’s a wonder how much longer they’ll play the underdog in games like this. But one thing is for certain with the Spartans: They don’t care about what other people think about them. They’re just going to keep playing ball.

“I’m just glad to go out there with my team,” MSU senior safety Kurtis Drummond said. “Giving us a great opportunity to go out here and put us up against a good team and really test the type of team that we have. Giving us a great stage and show the type of players that we have… I’m just excited to go out to Eugene with these guys and really show the world what we really can do and step up to the challenge.”

The chance is there for the world to find out about this Michigan State football program. And that chance is Saturday.