6:30 PM ET, September 6, 2014
Autzen Stadium, Eugene, OR
Michigan State's Mark Dantonio is doing his best to deflect the importance of Saturday's showdown with No. 3 Oregon as it relates to the first College Football Playoff that is still an entire season down the road.
Sure, if his seventh-ranked Spartans were to fall in Eugene in the school's first regular-season top-10 matchup in more than 47 years, there's ample time to make up ground and get back into the national title picture.
At the same time, a victory doesn't ensure anything if they were to falter in any of their future contests.
"This is an opportunity early in the season to see where we're at as a program," said Dantonio, who guided Michigan State to its first outright Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory since the 1987 season. "Win or lose, we still have a lot of football games ahead of us, and we have to understand that that's every bit as important as this one single game."
It's a pretty big one, though.
Oregon features Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota, who bypassed the NFL to return for his redshirt junior season. He was 14 of 20 for 267 yards and three touchdowns while adding another score on the ground in last Saturday's 62-13 rout of FCS-level South Dakota before sitting in the second half.
Mariota passed former Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington for the most total TDs in school history, but he knows he'll have a tough test in trying to solve a Michigan State defense that still ranks as one of the nation's best despite losing top contributors from last season.
"We are very excited. It poses a good challenge for us. It poses a good challenge for the entire team," Mariota said. "They're coming in as one of the best defenses in the country and any offense would love to face that challenge. It helps you see where you stack up."
The Ducks have national title hopes as well, and they looked every bit like a contender in racking up 673 yards against the Coyotes. Seventy-five of those, along with two touchdowns, came from highly touted freshman running back Royce Freeman.
Bryon Marshall added 90 yards rushing, but he also was used as a wide receiver in some sets and caught eight passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
Michigan State lost six starters from last year's defense, but it still has standout defensive end Shilique Calhoun and linebacker Taiwan Jones to help counter the Oregon attack. Calhoun was named a preseason All-American while Jones is on the watch list for the Butkus Award.
"They're going to play hard-nosed football," Ducks lineman Jake Fisher, an Outland Trophy nominee and Michigan native, told the team's official website. "They're going to try to contain, try to force things inside for their linebackers. They're going to play their game and they're very disciplined, so they're going to do exactly that."
Though the Spartans' defense receives plenty of attention, quarterback Connor Cook proved in Friday's 45-7 season-opening win over Jacksonville State that Michigan State has some weapons on offense, too.
Cook finished 12 of 13 for 285 yards and three touchdowns before sitting in the second half, fighting through an early hard hit to his left leg that left him briefly hobbled.
Two of those scoring passes went to Tony Lippett, who finished with 167 yards on four catches. Running back Nick Hill scored twice, and he believes Michigan State has the talent to win this tough road contest despite entering as nearly a two-touchdown underdog.
The Spartans beat No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and No. 5 Stanford in the Rose Bowl as a top-10 team, but they haven't been involved in a top-10 regular season showdown since No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State played to a 10-10 tie Nov. 19, 1966.
"We're ranked in the top 10 and we're going against a team that's ranked in the top 10," Hill said. "Our confidence is very high. I think that starting fast and big and scoring a lot of points offensively (in the opener) is very comforting to the players and the coaches."
These schools haven't met since Michigan State beat visiting Oregon 27-20 on Sept. 2, 1999, in East Lansing. The Ducks won 48-14 in Eugene the previous year.
Top 25 Overview
It's a top-10 matchup in Eugene featuring some of the most compelling storylines of the season. You've got blue-collar, punch-you-in-the-mouth Michigan State against a flashy, fast, Heisman Trophy candidate-led Oregon. It's the best game of Week 2 and might prove to be one of the most important of the season, with College Football Playoff implications.
|Avg Points Allowed||23.0||13.5|
Michigan State is currently a 12.5-point underdog to Oregon this week (was 13.5)... For Michigan State, it is the largest they have been underdog since 11/22/2008 when they were on the road in Penn State... They were a 16-point underdog that week and lost 49-18... A little context...Michigan State starting QB that week? Brian Hoyer...the back up? Kirk Cousins...[+]
With Michigan State traveling to No. 3 Oregon on Saturday... Sparty seeks its 1st true road win over an AP-Top 5 opponent since 1998 against No. 1 Ohio State. That team -- coached by Nick Saban -- handed the top-ranked Buckeyes their only loss of that season.
Michigan State led FBS in total defense last season, but they'll face a different challenge on Saturday. Oregon has run the zone read on 44 percent of rush attempts since the start of 2013, second-most among Power Five teams. The Spartans have only faced zone read on 12 percent of rush attempts in that span.[+]
Highest Pct of Zone Read Rushes - Power Five Conferences Since Start of 2013
Following Wisconsin's loss to LSU in primetime last week, the Big Ten looks for a marquee non-conference win when Michigan State travels to Oregon this weekend... The Big Ten needs it as the league plays only five more non-conference games against AP-ranked opponents and No. 3 Oregon is the only one ranked in the Top 15.[+]
Remaining AP-Ranked Non-Conference Opponents - Big Ten This Season
If (7) Michigan State is going to beat (3) Oregon this week, a big game is needed from its top RB Jeremy Langford. Since the start of the 2012 season, the formula to beating the Ducks consists of having a running back that has a big day on the ground. The only 3 instances in which Oregon has lost over that time, an opposing back has gone for at least 157 yards on at least 33 carries. While Langford has not reached either of those marks in a single game, he's had plenty of big games. Langford, a Preseason All-Big Ten selection by Phil Steele (second team), rushed for more than 100 yards in a school-record 8 straight games last season.[+]
Most Rush Yds vs Oregon - Since Start of 2012 Season
Michigan State has won its last 3 games in which it fell behind by double-digit points (2012 at Indiana, 2012 vs TCU, 2014 vs Stanford).
Michigan State rushed for 37 yards in the second half on 15 carries. The Spartans were contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage on nine of those 15 attempts. They had three such carries in the first half.[+]
Michigan State Rushing
After gaining 14 yards on 13 rushes in the first half against Michigan State, Oregon found space to run in the second half.[+]
Only once since 2004 has Oregon allowed more than 24 points in the 1st half at home. In 2010 against Stanford, the Ducks allowed 31 in the 1st half but held the Cardinal scoreless in the 2nd half and won 52-31.
Connor Cook had a career-high eight completions on passes thrown 15 yards or longer. It was the most such completions allowed by Oregon in a game in the last four seasons. However, Cook only had one such completion and three such attempts in the second half.[+]
Connor Cook Throws of 15+ Yards
Marcus Mariota completed 5-of-7 passes thrown 15 yards or longer, including all three of his touchdown passes. Last season, Michigan State allowed the lowest completion percentage on passes of this distance of any Power Five defense.[+]
Michigan State Defense vs Throws of 15+ Yards
ESPN Stats & Information