The nonconference date much of the college football-watching world has had circled on its calendar is here: Michigan State vs Oregon, Big Ten and Pac-12 heavyweights duking it out in a possible make-or-break contest for College Football Playoff positioning.
But Saturday’s marquee matchup in Autzen Stadium has more at play than the winner establishing an early pace in the Playoff race. The winning team dispels a criticism of its championship mettle; the loser perpetuates it.
See, Michigan State and Oregon have both been at the forefront of the college football scene in recent years, yet neither has a championship to show for it. The 2014 season may be the best opportunity either of these gridiron Susan Luccis (for those who don’t get the outdated reference, here you go) to finally hoist the hardware.
Saturday is that proverbial face-your-fears moment necessary for either to reach its goal.
There’s the obvious contrast of styles, which is the primary narrative for this week’s contest. Oregon is one of the highest scoring teams in the nation year after year; Michigan State is among the stingiest defenses each season.
Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio discussed defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s system in his weekly press conference:
“There’s not a lot of people who have played our defense in the past. I think people are moving towards it and doing some of the things that we’ve done, and we’ve had tremendous success with our defense in the last three, four – really the last four years. That trend need to continues for us to be successful. It’s my belief you win championships are great defenses.”
Michigan State rode that defense to a Big Ten Championship and then out-Stanford’d Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game. Obviously, that spells possible trouble for Oregon, a team that lost to Stanford–and thus lost its national championship hopes–each of the last two seasons.
Stanford’s ability to slow down Oregon’s quick-strike offense is among the most widely repeated elements at play this Saturday, and with good reason.
Oregon’s been close to the championship–oh-so-close. The Ducks came a miraculous play away from forcing overtime in the 2011 BCS Championship Game, and were at the forefront of the title race in November each of the last three years.
Stanford denied the Ducks the last two years, including last year with quarterback Marcus Mariota nursing a knee injury. With Mariota at 100 percent and Oregon’s offense deeper at running back than it’s ever been, head coach Mark Helfrich just might have enough sheer speed and depth to wear out the Spartans’ celebrated defense.
Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman will all see substantial workloads. Freeman is a potential X-factor, giving the Ducks a power-back look to throw at the physical Michigan State line.
Oregon’s veteran offensive front must hold up, in particular left tackle Andre Yruretagoyena. He started in place of injured Tyler Johnstone last week, and this week draws the assignment of stopping pass-rushing phenom Shilique Calhoun.
With defensive end Calhoun drawing much of the attention, the Sparty linebacker corps will bring additional pressure into the Oregon backfield. Taiwan Jones is a potential difference-maker, playing the role for Michigan State that Shayne Skov was brilliantly mastered against Oregon in Stanford’s two wins.
It isn’t just the Cardinal that have had a formula for success against Oregon, however.
Each of the Ducks’ defeats since 2010 share a unifying theme: Oregon was physically overpowered by teams employing a game plan built on either offensive line domination, defensive line domination, or both.
Auburn managed to grind the pace down in the 2011 BCS Championship Game; eight months later, LSU’s physicality wore out the Ducks in the 2011 season opener.
USC shocked Oregon in Autzen Stadium later that season with an early barrage, punching the Ducks in the bill early and holding onto a big lead the rest of the way.
Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez added a twist to his spread offense in the Wildcats’ upset of Oregon last November, pounding away at the Ducks defensive front seven with running back Ka’Deem Carey more than 40 times. That helped open the field for quarterback B.J. Denker, who capitalized with an efficient game passing.
If any quarterback Oregon faces this season is about efficiency, it’s Michigan State’s Connor Cook. Cook built nicely off the momentum he established late last season with an outstanding Week 1 performance.
Sparty will send powerful running back Jeremy Langford behind a stout offensive line early and often, testing new Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum’s philosophy of “pushing more weight” at the point of attack.
Of course, that’s contingent on Langford being fully recovered from an ankle injury. The potentially lingering issue does cast some doubt over the Spartan offense’s ability to capitalize on any opportunities its defense sets up–and that has been a repeatedly vexing issue for Michigan State teams, especially in big games.
And big games–particularly big games on the road–have been Michigan State’s championship Achilles’ heel.
There’s no question that this is a big game. The Spartans are breaking out all-white alternate uniforms with the tagline “Stand Up and Fight.”
Michigan State will wear these all-white uniforms for their road game AT Oregon (Week 2) pic.twitter.com/r5AeW7TOww
— PickSix Previews B1G (@PickSix_BigTen) June 18, 2014
Michigan State is adopting a very King Leonidas mindset. That’s a wise decision, because Oregon’s speed can make it seem they like a team is outmanned a few thousand to 300.
The 300 of Sparta had home-field advantage, however.
In 2011, Sparty scored a 37-31 win over Wisconsin in one of the best games of the last decade. The win put Michigan State potentially in BCS Championship contention.
But Michigan State also suffered confounding road losses at Notre Dame, 31-13, and at Nebraska, 24-3. While the Spartans won the now-defunct Big Ten Legends Division, they went into a rematch with Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game out of the national championship picture.
The Badgers exacted revenge for the previous loss in another instant classic. Might that game have gone differently if Michigan State was one loss lighter–perhaps without the three-touchdown beating at Nebraska to its credit?–and in the BCS hunt?
Perhaps not. The Big Ten is pretty significantly disrespected in the current landscape, and even one loss is enough to disqualify one of the conference’s teams from title contention.
Just ask Sparty a season ago.
Michigan State again could have been in the mix for the BCS Championship in 2013. And, to the Spartans’ credit, they scored their two most significant wins of the season away from East Lansing.
However, Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl defeats of Ohio State and Stanford were played on neutral fields. A true road game was again Michigan State’s title undoing, as the Spartans offense was just more anemic enough than Notre Dame’s for the Fighting Irish to win, 17-13.
While the Spartans ended the regular season with an identical record as BCS title game participant Auburn, there was never any contention as to which team would face undefeated Florida State in the Rose Bowl–a venue at which Sparty would later win.
The perception of the SEC and Big Ten being what they are, a close loss Michigan State loss was considered much worse than a two-touchdown defeat for Auburn. Hell, before the Big Ten Championship Game, there was talk of an undefeated Ohio State being bypassed by Auburn.
That precedent proves Michigan State has zero margin for error if it wants to play for a championship. The Spartans cannot afford a road stumble, and that includes Saturday at Oregon.