Lost in a 62-point barrage by the Oregon offense Saturday night was a solid debut by the 2014 Oregon offensive line. With two new starters, tackle Andrew Yruretagoyena and guard Jake Pisarcik, they didn’t allow a sack. The Ducks averaged 7.7 yards a carry and had just two negative plays, one on a pass on the first play of the game when Thomas Tyner was stopped one-on-one on a safety valve route along the right sideline.
The offensive line had only two of Oregon’s 9 penalties, one false start, one hold, and handled the FCS Coyote defense with consistency.
Michigan State’s defensive line, led by All-American Shilique Calhoun, will be a much sterner test. In week one they held Jackson State to just 25 yards rushing on 22 carries, giving up only one late touchdown in a 45-7 cruising. Quarterback Connor Cook was 12-13 passing for 285 yards, averaging 21 yards an attempt.
The game feels like a referendum between two futures for the Ducks. Auburn, LSU, USC, Stanford, Stanford, Arizona: in the short list of Oregon losses, the common denominator has been physical domination, the Ducks inability to run or stop the run.
The line’s down to 11 after initially hovering around 15. Still a touchdown and a field goal is a big spread, given that it’s a matchup of #3 vs. #8.
Both Cook and running back Jeremy Langford left Saturday’s game with leg injuries, but both say they’ll be full-go for the Ducks. The Michigan State offensive line is also banged-up, struggling a bit in the opener.
Even so, the Spartan game plan will be clear: control the clock with sustained drives and Langford’s bruising running, then burn the Ducks with the play-action pass. Disrupt Oregon’s offensive rhythm by controlling the line of scrimmage.
As a three-year starter, it’s now up to Marcus Mariota to be the difference-maker in games like these. He has to be on time and accurate and make big plays. He needs to get his offense off to a good start, so Mark Dantonio’s squad can’t take the air out of the ball and play keep away.
A lot of so-called experts will be predicting the familiar narrative in this one, and it’s time for the Ducks to break it. They’ll need a lot better effort from their defense, particularly from the linebackers.
With strength of schedule being a key component of the new college football playoff format, this game is a big ticket for the squad that wins it, a credential when it comes to seeding in December provided they win their conference.
If Oregon doesn’t beat Michigan State, chances are they’ll have real trouble with two or three other opponents this year. This game will show whether they’ve truly addressed their “Stanford problem,” and gotten tougher and stronger for physical opponents that want to dictate the tempo and play in the smash-mouth style. Langford gained more than half of his 1422 yards last year after contact, so Oregon’s tackling has to significantly improve this week in practice. Some will say that’s not a realistic hope.
After the game Saturday Mark Helfrich pointed to a lack of urgency by the defense. New defensive coordinator Don Pellum told reporters, “I think if you asked our players most of them would tell you that our intensity, the way we like to shed, throw and go, the way we like to move, it was inconsistent. We’re expecting a much faster, dynamic team. At times it showed a little bit but it wasn’t consistent and obviously we have to get it consistent.”
Can Mariota outscore the Spartans? MSU didn’t allow more than 24 points in any game last year. It would be quite a statement for the Ducks to erupt for 40 or more against that vaunted Big Ten defense, which has been in the top three in three or four defensive categories in each of the last four seasons. Safety Kurtis Drummond and linebacker Taiwan Jones lead that unit, which had three interceptions against JSU, and five sacks.
It’s also mildly alarming that the Ducks kicking game is in flux. Their big-leg sophomore sensation Matt Wogan was in uniform against South Dakota but didn’t play, and Oregon’s kick coverage looked leaky and inconsistent. Walk-on freshman Aidan Schneider handled to kickoffs and extra points, while the Ducks didn’t need a field goal attempt. There’s been no official word on Wogan’s status.