Every dedicated Duck (and Spartan) fan remembers the pivotal play in Oregon’s 46-27 comeback victory last September. Third-and-11, down by nine with little momentum and an anxious Autzen stadium looking on, Marcus Mariota miraculously evaded Spartan defenders before shoveling the ball to Royce Freeman for a first down. This determination rejuvenated the Duck spirits as they went on to score four unanswered touchdowns and solidify themselves as championship contenders.
In one month’s time the Ducks will migrate to East Lansing where these two preseason top 10 teams will face off in a rematch with College Football Playoff implications looming once again. Writers Joe Tuohey and Jeremy Dewar of “The Only Colors,” a Michigan State football publication, took the liberty of producing a preview of this pivotal game. While the article has tons of crucial information on both teams, there are some key factors not mentioned in the article that could play a huge role.
With arguably the best defensive line in the country, Michigan State will look to wreak havoc on the line of scrimmage. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun and defensive tackle Lawrence Thomas will have the task of controlling the line of scrimmage and stopping an Oregon running attack that averaged 234 yards per game last year.
Tuohey and Dewar suggest that the dominance of the defensive line will be a deciding factor in a potential Spartan victory. Much of this confidence stems from Oregon losing all-American center Hroniss Grasu and offensive tackle Jake Fisher to the NFL draft, but there are plenty of equally talented Duck offensive linemen waiting in the wings.
Returning from injury is senior tackle Tyler Johnstone, who brings leadership and plenty of big game experience. Replacing the two-time all-American Grasu will be difficult, but graduate transfer Matt Hegarty from Notre Dame is as a proven commodity at the Power 5 level. Returning starters in junior Cameron Hunt and sophomore Tyrell Crosby will also anchor a strong unit.
When asked about the transition of new players, offensive coordinator Scott Frost said, “You know, every year you lose some key guys, and some guys have to step up and fill the spots. Obviously, it’s going to be great to have Tyler Johnstone back.” Frost’s confidence in his offensive line should provide relief for Duck fans who may be frightened by highlight videos of Spartan defenders.
On the other side of the ball, the Ducks have their work cut out for them going against quarterback and Heisman candidate Connor Cook. Oregon’s secondary is heavily depleted after losing cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill, as well as safety Erick Dargan.
Andrew Grief of OregonLive, who had the chance to interview defensive coordinator Don Pellum a few weeks ago, learned more about what we should expect from the Duck defense this season. When asked about the strengths of the team, Pellum said,”Based on paper it would be the front seven because there’s a lot of experience. There are four senior linebackers and three senior defensive linemen and then a ton of juniors who’ve played a ton.”
That defense will be led by all-Pac-12 performer Deforest Buckner whose size and speed will be on display and showing the country that Michigan State isn’t the only team with NFL talent on the defensive line. As Pellum said, the Ducks could start four senior linebackers against the Spartans, led by Tyson Coleman, Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick. Watch for their experience and tackling skills to shine against a Michigan State rushing attack that has yet to find a legitimate replacement for graduated running back Jeremy Langford.
Limiting the running game and creating pressure on Cook will put the Ducks secondary in significantly better situations. The success of the front seven will thus be a crucial factor against the Spartans.
September 12th will be a true test for the Ducks, as the wounds from last year’s defeat are still fresh for Michigan State. With 17 seniors, however, Oregon boasts an abundance of leadership to withstand a tough opponent in a hostile environment.
New Spartan defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel have the difficult task of stopping the prolific Duck offense that scored 45 points per game last season. For all the reasons listed above – and because I just love my Ducks – we should be able to exit East Lansing with a huge win. Too much speed at the skill positions will create countless mismatches, and the defense will be able to get Connor Cook off the field at least a few times. It should be an exhilarating game that will have every fan pumped for the remainder of the season.
Prediction: Ducks 38, Spartans 31
Be sure to stay updated on all pregame and postgame analysis with our friends from the Midwest @ theonlycolors.com
Top Photo by Kevin Cline