Michigan State matchup looms as a big, big game

Just a few weeks after completing one of the most successful seasons in program history, the Spartans were back at work, starting winter conditioning drills at 5:30 in the morning.

In seven years, Mark Dantonio has transformed the culture at Michigan State, as powerfully as Chip Kelly did at Oregon. Last year’s 13-win season was the second-ever in school history.

Daunting challenge: the same Stanford team that dominated the Ducks fell hard against Michigan State in the 2014 Rose Bowl, held to 11 first downs in a 24-20 Spartan victory (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports).

The 57-year-old head coach is 64-29 at MSU.  He’s beaten archrival Michigan five of the last six times. Last year they went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 26 seasons, clubbing Urban Meyer and the Ohio State 34-24 in the Big Ten Championship, then manhandling the Nerds 24-20 in the Granddaddy. Quarterback Connor Cook, back this season to command the Spartans, was named MVP of both games.

Fans are giddy after the 13-1 season and a number three final ranking, a little chippy that Auburn got preferential treatment for the national title berth. They’ve watched the former Cincinnati Bearcat coach churn out three 11-win seasons in four years and three bowl wins in a row. They’re even more optimistic for 2014, believing the squad has a chance to qualify for the first FBS playoffs after starting with a preseason ranking in the top six.  “Remember Oregon lost to Stanford,” they’re whispering on the message boards. “The Cardinal held them scoreless until the fourth quarter.”

A win over the Ducks at Autzen would catapult MSU into the playoff race, with the rematch with the Buckeyes on November 8th in East Lansing after a bye. Sparty faces Jacksonville State, Eastern Michigan and Wyoming in their other nonconference games. They have Nebraska and tOSU at home, face new conference members Maryland and Rutgers in November before closing the league slate with Penn State at Beaver Stadium.

Like their historical counterparts, the Spartans do it with discipline and defense, ranked number four behind Alabama, Florida State and BYU last year while allowing just 274.4 yards a game. Led by a stifling unit that allowed just 13.2 points a game, Dantonio’s green storm beat all nine conference opponents by at least ten points, the first time a Big Ten team had ever done that.

They lose six starters off the defense, but the five that are returning include Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shalique Calhoun, a powerful, lightning-quick defensive end. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi also has a commitment from 6-7, 290-lb. Malik McDowell, a five-star prospect who could make an impact right away, but his parents still haven’t signed his letter of intent. At their urging he’ll visit Michigan, Florida State and Ohio State before making a decision.

But the returning Spartans were up early after Signing Day, determined to ward off complacency. Dantonio told veteran reporter and radio host Mike Griffith of Mi.com, “We were in here at 5:30 in the morning. It’s a chance to reflect and step back and reestablish who we are. I think we have to do that when we’ve had the success we’ve had this past year.”

“You need to restart the engine, so you need to really back it up and find out why you were successful.”

For the Ducks, the September 6th matchup at Autzen is a big, big game, particularly because it comes against the kind of opponent critics say they can’t match up with, a big, physical team with an elite defense and a power running game. Even though Oregon has won those kind of games in the recent past, notably against Wisconsin and Kansas State in BCS bowls, national perception is still shaped by losses to Auburn, LSU, USC 2011 Stanford and Arizona,  games in which the Ducks were physically dominated and lost the line of scrimmage.

Kirk Herbstreit and the pundits at ESPN will be ready with the familiar narrative if Oregon loses. If they win, the Ducks national title bid and Marcus Mariota’s Heisman candicy reaches a whole new level of credibility. “This is a different Duck team.” the panel at the Home Depot set will say. “They seem to have an edge they’ve lacked since Chip Kelly left.”

The clash with MSU will be nationally televised, a day game, one of the marquee matchups of college football’s first month.

Discipline and complacency seemed to be a problem for Oregon in 2013. In that way, Michigan State represents their ultimate challenge, a early test that could define their season and Mark Helfrich’s identity as a head coach.

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