Oregon vs. Michigan State projects as a dead-even thriller. What else do we know? – SB Nation
Be they from offense, defense, or special teams, the Spartans and Ducks are going to produce plenty of big plays on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
A year ago, Oregon’s statement win over Michigan State — absorbing some serious blows from the Spartans in the second quarter, then gunning it in the second half and winning 46-27 — was a sign of what was to come. The Ducks stumbled when offensive injuries took their toll, but they refound their pace, rolling to 13-2 and a national title appearance.
Michigan State proved one of the nation’s best teams outside of the top tier. The Spartans lost to both title game participants by a combined 31 but took down all other comers and finished 11-2, 11th in the F/+ rankings.
Saturday’s return game in East Lansing (8 p.m. ET, ABC) recalls a lot about last year’s battle. But a lot has changed in 53 weeks.
As you would expect with the No. 6 team hosting the No. 3 team (according to F/+), this one is projected nearly even. Oregon is given a 0.7 point edge and a 52 percent chance to win in a game capable of producing big plays on offense, defense, and special teams. This is going to be fun.
But because each team has only played one game, we’re just reading tea leaves so far. So what do they say?
Oregon doesn’t look ready to stop the pass yet
There were already reasons to worry about Oregon’s secondary. A lot of Duck defensive backs got experience last year thanks to injuries, but Oregon still had to replace two of the nation’s most active cornerbacks (Troy Hill and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who combined for five tackles for loss and 30 passes defensed last season) and a tremendous playmaker at free safety (Erick Dargan).
If the Oregon pass rush is as solid as it could be (and with the return of Torrodney Prevot and Christian French, there’s reason for optimism), that could help until the secondary settles in. That wasn’t the case in Week 1.
Eastern Washington passed all over Oregon. The Eagles always have a strong offense, but this was obscene. EWU completed 37 of 55 (67 percent) for 438 yards and five scores. The Eagles spread the Ducks from side to side, then took shots deep. Cooper Kupp caught 15 of 18 attempts for 246 yards and three scores. He caught three of 30-plus yards, including a 73-yarder. Sophomore corner Aarion Springs did break up a couple and sophomore DBs Chris Seisay and Juwaan Williams each had interceptions, but Springs’ largest contribution to the box score was seven solo tackles, most of which took place after Kupp had caught a pass.
The pass rush that was supposed to bail the Ducks out never came. Prevot and French combined for 1.5 total tackles, and the Ducks had only four tackles for loss in 86 snaps.
MSU QB Connor Cook must be licking his chops. Cook was inefficient in the opener against Western Michigan (15-for-31), but he completed four of eight passes to Aaron Burbridge for 117 yards; Burbridge also drew two penalties that resulted in first downs. Three other Spartans (tight end Josiah Price and wideouts DeAnthony Arnett and Macgarrett Kings) caught passes for 20-plus yards as well. It was an all-or-nothing passing game, but Oregon’s secondary could struggle to prevent the “all” part.
State might still have a cornerback problem
When MSU lost All-American Darqueze Dennard following 2013, the Spartans slid Trae Waynes into the top spot. Waynes is gone now, and MSU starts a converted safety (Demetrious Cox) and a redshirt freshman (Vayante Copeland) at the two corner spots.
Thanks to an absurd pass rush, Western Michigan averaged only 5.8 yards per throw; Michigan State sacked quarterback Zach Terrell seven times and picked him off twice. Create enough havoc, and you can live with breakdowns.
But when Terrell had time, he did damage. He completed 33 of 50 passes (66 percent), and while most of those passes were short, star receiver Corey Davis had a big day: 18 targets, 10 catches, 154 yards. Three WMU players caught passes of 25-plus yards, and the Broncos gained 20-plus yards on five plays.
If Terrell and Davis were able to do that, imagine what Vernon Adams Jr. and company can do. Adams, an EWU transfer who beat out Jeff Lockie for the starting QB job despite missing part of fall camp, looked awesome against his former team. He completed 19 of 25 (76 percent) for 246 yards; he spread the ball around (eight different Ducks caught passes) and seems to have forged a quick bond with his top receivers. Byron Marshall and Dwayne Stanford caught seven of nine balls for 159 yards.
Adams will have to have time. MSU linebacker Riley Bullough has already nearly matched his 2014 sack total; he had 3.5 in 2014 and had three last Thursday night. Star end Shilique Calhoun (one sack, one hurry) was barely involved, but Sparty spent a lot of time in WMU’s backfield.
Adams’ mobility is a strength; he had 14 carries for 94 yards against EWU, forming one hell of a one-two punch with Oregon’s running back of choice. But mobile quarterbacks are often prone to taking more sacks, and the State attack will be the best Adams has ever faced.
Joe Robbins, Getty
WMU couldn’t even pretend to run the ball …
Jarvion Franklin averaged 24 carries per game as a WMU freshman in 2014. He had eight against Michigan State.
Part of that was due to context — WMU trailed 27-7 midway through the second quarter, and he lost early opportunities thanks to a kick return touchdown — but part was due to the fact that it simply wasn’t working. He gained 23 yards in those eight rushes, and WMU quickly decided it wasn’t worth it to even try. Including sacks as pass attempts, WMU attempted 57 passes to only 16 rushes.
Considering State ranked No. 1 in the country in Rushing Success Rate+ last year and returns most of its front seven, that makes sense. This is a vicious defensive front, good at both stuffing runs and getting to the passer.
… but Oregon isn’t WMU
Of course, Royce Freeman averaged 6.8 yards per carry against this awesome defense last year. His 89 rushing yards, combined with a couple of timely jaunts by quarterback Marcus Mariota, helped to crack State open, and Mariota’s arm — 17 completions, 318 yards, three touchdowns, no picks — did the rest.
Adams is more of an unabashed rusher than Mariota was, and against an outmanned EWU front, Oregon did whatever it wanted. Adams averaged 6.7 yards per carry, and in 41 carries, the foursome of Freeman, Kani Benoit, Tony Brooks-James, and Taj Griffin gained 386 yards. In just 82 snaps, Oregon gained 731 yards.
As problematic as the defense was at times, the offense almost looked better than last year’s.
To say the least, State offers a slight upgrade to EWU. But Oregon is an upgrade over WMU, too.
Forcing the Spartans to punt can still put you in a bad spot
MSU’s Jake Hartbarger proved quite the field-flipper in the opener. The redshirt freshman averaged 47.2 yards in four punts against WMU, getting two downed inside the 20.
When State scores, State will have to kickoff
WMU’s Darius Phillips averaged a cool 46.3 yards per return on Thursday. He returned the opener 70 yards to set WMU with an immediate scoring opportunity (it ended in a missed field goal); then, after State went up 7-0, Phillips returned 100 yards for a score. Any coverage glitch could be deadly against Oregon’s Byron Marshall, who averaged 33 yards in three returns against EWU.
Of course, Marshall might not even be the return man. Sophomore Charles Nelson, one of the Ducks’ most dangerous ball handlers last year, is expected to play after missing the EWU game with injury.
Field position will be huge in such an evenly matched game, and State’s opening game provided both optimism and pessimism.