The Michigan State Spartans were stoic after Oregon’s huge comeback victory Saturday, accepting responsibility for failure and giving full credit to the Ducks, especially Marcus Mariota.
MSU Coach Mark Dantonio said “Mariota’s tough, he leads, and he creates. And that’s the difference in the football game. He created, and we let him get out of it. Probably 4 or 5 times he got away from sacks.”
The Spartans defense lived up to its reputation for shutting down even the most powerful offenses (such as Stanford in last year’s Rose Bowl, and Oregon in the first half tonight), but the Ducks’ coaches were better able to respond in the second half.
“I thought we played well enough to win in those first 2-and-a-half quarters,” Dantonio said, “but then it got away from us and we could not turn it back. We couldn’t regain the momentum.”
This was a vindication for coach Mark Helfrich, who was criticized last year for not adjusting as effectively at halftime as his predecessor did. (Of course, few coaches have ever adjusted as well as Chip Kelly.)
Saturday, Helfrich — and/or new defensive coordinator Don Pellum — made all the right changes, especially in the secondary. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook singled out one particular change:
“They [played] a lot of middle field closed, cover 3, cover 4 in the first half, and they adjusted and went to cover 2 [after halftime] and that kind of made things difficult for us.”
Senior wide receiver Tony Lippett said the Cover 2 defense was a surprise. “[W]atching film this week, it was something they didn’t really do. So I’m not gonna say it was a factor, but it was just something different, and we have to do our best to adjust to that, and we’ll do that in the future.”
Oregon’s All-American CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu had another great game, including a decisive late interception which Dantonio called “a great play.” I asked QB Cook if he threw away from Ekpre-Olomu’s side of the field. “”Not really … we weren’t really trying to go away from him, just going through my reads.” (Maybe that was the problem.)
Spartans denied that they got fatigued against the Ducks’ tempo offense, but even their denials betrayed the effect it had. When the Ducks’ offense was sputtering in the second quarter, occasional long passes — such as Devon Allen’s 70-yard TD catch on his second reception as a Duck — kept Oregon close.
Asked if Oregon’s pace was an issue, senior safety Kurtis Drummond said, “Their tempo is their tempo, but we practiced hard this week. But a lot of it was just communication, just misalignments. Something we can work on and fix that – I’ll put that on my secondary. We gotta get lined up quicker, communicate better.”
Well, if you need to get lined up quicker, then tempo would seem to be a problem, wouldn’t it? Coach Dantonio’s denials also rang a bit hollow.
“I thought our conditioning was fine, I didn’t see a lot of guys tapping their helmets … they pretty much went the distance. Maybe that hurt us at the end of the game, I’m not sure, but they weren’t tapping out. We didn’t lose the game because we were out of condition. We lost the game because we could not contain the quarterback in the fourth quarter, and in the third on a couple sacks.”
But Allen, Oregon’s rookie WR, identified fatigue as the precise reason that the Spartans couldn’t get to Mariota in the second half.
“Once we started getting our tempo, and playing Oregon football, we kind of opened up the run game and that’s where we saw some big runs, and some open lanes in the pass game, and some time for Marcus to throw the ball. Once we got them a little bit tired, they didn’t blitz, they didn’t rush as many people, that made it a little bit easier for us.”
Allen, the NCAA 110-meter hurdle champion, gained exactly 110 yards receiving today. It was a lucky number for him, and even luckier for Oregon. On his 70-yard touchdown in the first half, the defensive back spun him around 360 degrees, but the rookie kept his balance and actually accelerated toward the end zone, like the Voyager spacecraft that looped around Jupiter for a gravity slingshot out into space.
I asked MSU safety Drummond if Allen’s hurdles experience helped him keep his balance on this play, and he just laughed. “I don’t think you spin around and jump over hurdles,” he said.
Featured photo by Kevin Cline for FishDuck
Mark Saltveit’s new book, “Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution,” will be released in October by Diversion Books of New York.