There’s no doubt about it, Oregon’s face off with Michigan State is a big one- a game that could change the course of each program’s season for the better or the worse. Duck fans know that all too well.
For the past two seasons, Oregon has been well on its way to that final college football showdown- the Natty– only to have that journey crushed not once, but twice by those brainiacs in Palo Alto. So, it’s no surprise, considering Michigan State’s smash-mouth play style, that fans and media pundits are flocking (no pun intended) to draw comparison to that painful Stanford match-up. But is that fair? Maybe. . .or maybe not. I’d argue the latter.
Sure, there are similarities between Stanford and Michigan State. First of all, both teams are often described as “big”, “tough” and “powerful”. Both rely on their tough defenses and will use their running backs to nickel and dime yards, eating away at the clock. Perhaps what’s more important and possibly missed in all the game analysis this week however, is that Oregon is a much different team than it was last year, starting with the guy under center- Marcus Mariota.
Looking at last season’s two losses (Stanford and Arizona), one of the major factors was Mariota’s knee injury. Sure, he was able to play against Stanford, but it was later revealed he wasn’t 100%. Then, against Arizona . . .well, let’s not even go there. Of course, the other common denominator in those losses was a very strong run game by the opponents in the form of Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney and Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey. Letting them run wild was clearly on the defense, but had Oregon’s offense had it’s fully healthy duel threat leader, the outcome may have been very different.
This year, Marcus Mariota is fully healthy and even more confident than ever before. His demeanor both on and off the field is notably different. He holds his head up high, he speaks with poise and he’s leading the team in a more vocal way. Add to this, Mariota’s experience against those “smash mouth” teams and the amount of time he’s had to study and learn from those losses last year and we are likely to see a very different Mariota against MSU.
A second major difference in this year’s Oregon team is it’s even stronger offense (if that was even possible). Last year’s team boasted numerous playmakers including Wide Receiver, Josh Huff, and of course Running Back, De’Anthony Thomas, but this year, it appears the offense is overflowing with talented playmakers. Not only have a number of receivers stepped up, but Running Backs, Thomas Tyner, Byron Marshall and true freshman phenom, Royce Freeman may be this year’s unstoppable weapon. Each have different strengths, and together, the trio has fittingly earned the nickname “Three Headed Monster”. Even with all of Oregon’s recent success, when has there ever been this many talented RB’s in the back field? There have usually been two. . . but three? Watching Michigan State’s defense handle them will definitely be interesting to say the least.
Finally, what could be one of the most important changes this year is a much more experienced Offensive Line. In each of the last year’s losses, Oregon lost the match up at the line of scrimmage, meaning defenses were having their way with that line way too often, putting unwelcome pressure on both Mariota and the run game and ultimately keeping the Oregon’s offense off the field and out of the endzone. This year, Oregon returns nearly all of it’s front 7, including Center, Hronis Grasu, a frequent flyer on several award lists this year.
In short, tomorrow’s match up will be tough, but Michigan State is not Stanford and this is not the Oregon team that faced Stanford anyhow. Considering Oregon’s losses last year as a blue print for a Spartan victory is a unnecessary mistake. After all, Oregon’s “finesse” is very capable of standing it’s ground against a “powerful” team- think K-State and Texas-especially with a healthy Heisman hopeful QB leading the way.
While we’re here, If you’re looking for some basic things to keep your eye on tomorrow, here’s some help:
1. Time of Possession.
There’s no doubt, Michigan State will do all it can to keep Oregon’s offense off the field by running the ball little by little to drain the clock. Oregon’s D-line will therefore be very important tomorrow. Players to watch: Derrick Malone (22) and Tyson Coleman (33).
2. Special Teams.
Tomorrow’s match up will likely be a slug fest, ending in a close final score. Special Teams could play a huge role in giving the Ducks the edge. A punt or kick off return could go a very long way.
Granted it was the first game, but Oregon’s number of penalties against South Dakota was way too high. In a match up with a team like South Dakota, it may not matter much, but against a powerhouse like Michigan State, any free yards could make a big difference.
4. A Duel Threat Mariota.
If Mariota is able to find his receivers and take off on his feet at any point, especially in the first half, the Ducks should find their way to victory. As many a Duck fan know, a duel threat game by Mariota means an Oregon hay day- one that will be very hard to stop, no matter how “powerful” you are.