Outlook for an Oregon Playoff bid is a whole lot clearer after the Ducks’ 46-27 win over Michigan State Saturday.
Oregon didn’t just defy the conventions critics held; the Ducks smashed them.
Michigan State imposed its will in the first half with its physical style of play, built a sizable lead and simply punched Oregon in its mouth. All Puddles did was wipe his bill, smile and deliver a knockout counter-punch.
The Ducks answered questions about their ability to handle physical and athletic defenses. Michigan State rolled into Autzen Stadium with one of the nation’s best, coordinated by the celebrated Pat Narduzzi.
And the Spartans did indeed test the Ducks, forcing six punts through the first 21/2 quarters. Michigan State used that time to test another of Oregon’s more lamented facets, its defense.
The Spartans deluged the Ducks with 24 second-quarter points and took a two-score lead in the third quarter.
From that point on, Oregon dominated in every phase.
One of the biggest differences in this year’s Oregon team compared to the 2013 version is the addition of running back Royce Freeman. The freshman from Imperial County, California gives offensive coordinator Scott Frost a power option lacking in the Ducks’ run game a season ago.
Frost was more than willing to exercise that option, as Freeman’s 13 carries matched Thomas Tyner for team high. Freeman also made the most of his opportunities, rolling off 6.8 yards per carry and scoring two touchdowns.
With Freeman in the backfield, Oregon can counter power teams like Stanford with power. That then opens the field for quarterback Marcus Mariota to do what he does best: run circles around the defense.
Mark Helfrich on Marcus Mariota: "Unbelievable. I should pay to watch that guy play." #Ducks
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) September 7, 2014
If this is the year Oregon delivers on its championship promise, Mariota should finally get the Heisman love he’s been denied in his first two seasons. He certainly took one big step toward reaching New York Saturday with 318 yards passing and three touchdowns against Michigan State’s No-Fly Zone defense.
The Mariota-led Oregon offense left no doubt it can best a top-tier defense, and Ducks defensive coordinator Don Pellum made it clear he’s the right guy to have Oregon playing at a championship level on the other side of the ball.
After the Spartans’ second-quarter flurry, Pellum’s defense shut Michigan State down. Oregon is at its best defensively when it’s generating turnovers, and the Ducks intercepted quarterback Connor Cook twice–that’s one-third the total number of picks he threw in 2013.
Had Oregon just all over Michigan State from the outset and cruised, it may not have made the same statement. With the circumstances of Saturday’s contest, however, head coach Mark Helfrich may have sent his most resounding message about the Ducks’ 2014 championship mettle.
Oregon had to adjust to win. The Ducks had to persevere against a high-quality opponent. In doing so, they most emphatically removed the monkey that has clung to their back in recent years.
This team looks ready to return to the Pac-12 pinnacle and challenge for the program’s first national championship.