Coming off their 45-7 win over Jacksonville St., the Spartans travel west to Autzen Stadium to face the 3rd ranked Oregon Ducks at 6:30 pm on Fox.
Connor Cook came out blazing Friday night and this unit burned hot to the Half, hanging an impressive 38 points to start the year. While JSU is a 1-AA (many of us will never buy the term FCS) team, Friday night was the Spartans best start in an opener since 2007 (MSU led UAB 45-3 at the Half). Friday’s stats are only part of the story, however. Injuries were the rest, and despite what the current depth chart says, we’ll get the rest of that story during the game.
After Cook threw what became a 64-yard Touchdown pass to Tony Lippett, the knee brace that protects his left leg would face a serious test. In a hit that was reckless and late, if not straight dirty, JSU Safety Folo Johnson dove directly at Cook’s left knee, basically bending it a little backwards. For more than a moment there was extraordinary concern in Spartan Nation. Thanks to the brace, it appeared, the injury does not look anywhere near the catastrophic level it could have otherwise become.
Many remember the moment Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati Bengals’ fortune was forever changed during a similar play. As Palmer dropped back and threw a perfect deep ball on the Bengals’ first passing play in a Playoff game against the Steelers, he was hit late and his knee was destroyed. Palmer’s left knee ligaments were blown up. His knee was never the same, and the Bengals haven’t come that close to making a Super Bowl since.
Not long after, many began to notice the left knee brace that Pete Carroll’s USC Quarterbacks were wearing. They apparently became part of that program to protect a Quarterbacks plant leg from the kind of destruction that destroyed Palmer. As time went on, they became more popular around the sport and at some point, Michigan St. Quarterbacks began wearing them. To my eye, the brace saved Connor Cook’s knee from major injury, and that is exactly the type of injury that brace is there to prevent. As eyes turn to Oregon, Spartan Nation thanks the blessings of science and luck that their season hopes didn’t go up in flames like the Bengals’ did back in the 2006.
“We have an identity at Quarterback,” Mark Dantonio stated after the win Friday night in comparison to early last season. If Cook plays well in a win at Oregon, his name will immediately be added to the still-way-too-soon Heisman Trophy discussion. Cook will obviously not go it alone Saturday night, and nor was he the only Spartan banged up on Friday, but his position remains the most important on this team.
Jeremy Langford picked up about where he left off from New Years Day, and there wasn’t much of a drop off as carries were spread around later in the game. Nick Hill looked quicker than last year, Gerald Holmes saw his first game reps, and Delton Williams got some work in as well. The concern, of course, is that Langford took a couple late shots as the game went on and may have left the field with a high-ankle issue or two. High-ankle sprains, strains, and other damage can be among the most debilitating for a Running Back. You won’t have to listen to what Langford or anyone else says about his health during the week, you’ll know what shape he’s in by how he looks on the field at Oregon.
If you stayed up late and had access to the Pac 12 Network Saturday night you saw the Ducks Defense struggle a bit with pulling Guards on rushing plays. The issue apparently goes back to past years and is obvious enough now that it was discussed at length by various analysts during the broadcast. Safe to say new Oregon Defensive Coordinator Don Pellum is working on it, but the Ducks still may be vulnerable in that area. South Dakota ran for 172 yards on 39 carries in that game. That’s a lot of feathers. There’s no doubt the Spartans want to run the ball, control the clock, and keep the ball out of the hyper speed Oregon Offense’s hands as much as possible. Keep an eye on the Spartan Guards all day long because as their success goes, the Spartans’ running game should go too.
The Spartan passing attack is one big performance away from becoming highly respected around the country. They were the difference in the 4th Quarter of the last Big Ten Title game, and brought MSU back from the brink in the Rose Bowl. If they perform against Oregon, they will have earned their keep on three of the biggest stages in the sport right now. “Our guys believe in each other, and they’re making plays,” Dantonio boasted Friday night about the passing game and well of fine Wide Receivers.
AJ Troup was touted as a potential starter after Spring Ball, 2013. Then Troup hit serious adversity, again, with a third torn ACL knee injury. Friday night he snagged his first Touchdown pass in Spartan Stadium and quickly established himself as a yet another Spartan passing threat. “Big bodied Wide Receiver that can go out there and get the ball,” Dantonio described him as after the game. In a playing group already stacked, Troup may be just the fit needed for MSU inside the Red Zone. Trying to line up when MSU goes five-wide will not be an easy thing for opponents to defend. Perhaps we will see that formation this week.
“He knows the ins and outs of this Offense,” Tony Lippett said about the Connor Cook of 2014 after Friday night’s win. MSU will need Cook’s command and understanding of every position of the Spartans’ Offense as they prepare for the hardest road environment they will face this year. Autzen Stadium is small, loud, and not often friendly to opposing teams. But the Spartans, if healthy, could not look any more ready for such a national spotlight.
The premier inter-conference matchup within a matchup is the “innovative” Oregon Offense versus the likewise Spartan Dawg Defense. This is what will bring a national TV audience, ESPN’s traditionally MSU doubting Game Day crew, and pack the relatively tight Autzen Stadium with Nike gear all around. Oregon’s prolific Offense will test the foundation of the Spartan Defense, which Darien Harris recently reminded us is built on effort, toughness, and knowledge.
It’s easy enough to say that everyone on the field for this unit will have to do everything well for the Spartans to have a chance to win the game. That’s completely obvious. But if you look at where Oregon’s Offense can damage a Defense and run up buckets of points, trying to contain them becomes a bit more focused.
The Chip Kelly style Offense that the Ducks are known for seems to run on a few basic principles: speed, space, and simplicity. We first heard Mark Dantonio (and soon after the Defensive Coordinator that tagged along from Cincinnati named Pat Narduzzi) talk about “playing fast” somewhere around outside the temporary trailer-offices when they arrived in late 2006. The Oregon Offense works very well in part because they snap the ball fast and their skill players run fast. While MSU has had success in recent years against the Northwestern and the Urban Meyer-Buckeyes spread, Oregon will be a different hybrid that presents extreme challenges. It’s a play-fast versus play-fast clash. When Ducks get the ball in space, they fly. When they fly they score, fast, and then go for the 2-point conversion pretty often. We’re not sure they’ll try to post 8’s as often as they have against ordinary opponents, but expect the Ducks to look like no other team the modern Spartan Defense has faced.
It’s obvious that the Defense needs to tackle well in space, and pretty clear that the deep and speedy Spartan Linebacker core will be tested all across the field. Oregon likes to find space and move through it, anywhere on the field. But over the years when Defenses have penetrated well with the front four, especially when those front men have been able to make some tackles, they have struggled a lot more to move the ball.
In past years the Defense was counted on to not only keep MSU in the game, but to practically win some of them. Saturday their goal should be to keep the Spartans in it. Expecting Oregon to score, at home, would be logical. Whether they are kept in the 20s or the 40s should be the difference between winning and losing. Last year they were only held in the 20s by Stanford in a loss, and the 30s in a classic and close Civil War game win against Oregon St., and their Bowl win over Texas. If the Spartans can keep the Ducks below the 40 points, they should have a real chance to win.
Michael Geiger missed only one Field Goal try last year, and we’re still not sure his wind blown try at Iowa City was actually no good. Perhaps if we had higher Goal Posts we would know for sure. The kick he missed against JSU Friday night was no good from the get go. It looked more like a dead pull because of a misalignment than anything else. But that’s just going off the parallels that place kicking has with hitting golf shots. Perhaps you know the feeling, coming off the summer and Labor Day weekend. Geiger’s miss was a surprise, yet couldn’t have come at a better time. Until there’s a good reason to worry about his accuracy, it would seem a wasted effort to do so. Hopefully he can get out and kick in Autzen Friday around the time the game will be played to understand the sight lines and any potential issues with the sunset.
The return game somewhat hinges on the health of Macgarrett Kings. Kings went down with a seriously painful looking lower leg injury that had some experts wondering if an Achilles had been blown. Perhaps it was just a heavily bruised from a flying defender. In either case, the punt return may have to look deeper than Kings if he can’t fly at full speed Saturday. Regardless of his place on this week’s depth chart, we again won’t know Kings’ ability to play until we see him out there lined up. Needless to say, a dropped punt turnover could be a huge difference in what should be a pretty tight game. So if Kings can’t go, we can reasonably expect someone like Nick Hill with big game experience may end up back there.
Remember our discussion of how Special Teams should not matter that much in most games this year? Well forget about that for the coming week. It could definitely be the difference in such an evenly looking matchup.
Other than the injury scares, the Spartans took care of business last Friday night with the intensity and focus of a Top-5 team. “Iowa Flat,” these Spartans were far from. We haven’t seen that look in an opener around East Lansing for a very long time. Though 2007 got off to a great start, the teams’ respective prospects were not in the same ballpark. MSU played around 70 players Friday night, got rid of a few first game jitters, and tuned the engines all the way up for the coming monster in Oregon.
This is the most anticipated inter-conference matchup of the entire College regular season. Take ESPN out of the equation, remove the BTN and Fox, and just focus on the game itself. This is a huge treat for the season’s second week, and will rightfully command serious attention.
Of course the Spartans want to run the ball and control the clock, but it does mean more against this Oregon Offense than it will in other games on the schedule. While time of possession is arguably the most overrated stat in football, it should mean something Saturday night. Ohio St. beat Oregon handily in the 2010 Rose Bowl in large part because they controlled the ball so well. They should’ve won by more, but Tressel Ball was still in full effect then.
Pressure is a funny thing in College Football. Sometimes high powered Offenses will struggle early at home in big games, and look tight all day. We’ve seen that at Michigan St. before and it’s happened all over the country often enough to become an established trend. This is not only a big one for MSU, it’s a monster for Oregon too. You could argue that Oregon’s “big game” record isn’t very good over the past couple years. Outside of a Fiesta Bowl win over a record-inflated Kansas St. team, you may have to go back to the 2011 season when they upset then #3 Stanford on the road, and later bested Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. This is not a current Oregon team with as many big wins as these Spartans can hang their hat on. There is probably a little more heat on the Ducks this Saturday than most of the country thinks.
If the Spartans Offense travels well to the west coast again, this team can more than hang tight with Oregon and should never too far behind. Oregon loves to levy a 1st Half knock out if they can, especially in their own friendly nest. MSU must be ready to match the Ducks intensity from the initial kick. Again, matching the intensity of a home team is a huge key to winning on the road (see Texas A&M last week).
The Spartans will enter Autzen Stadium with all the tools needed to top the Ducks, including confidence. Mark Dantonio confirmed to Spartan Nation earlier this week that this Spartan team will be a confident one as they take their talents west back to the west coast and step on a really big stage. Expect 60-minutes of excitement, though this team knows they need to take it one snap at a time, one quarter at a time. That may be just the right approach to getting out of the hostile bird’s nest with a very large “W”.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- Professional Football is a business first, now more than ever. Almost every single decision made in the NFL is made from a “business first” position. College Football is a passion first. It must stay that way whatever unions are formed or stipends and salaries are dished out. You’ve seen what’s happening to College Basketball, right?
- The term “Social Media” is wildly misused, even by the media. If you’re a celebrity or person of notoriety like a College Football player, what you Tweet, post, etc. should be considered Social Media. If you’re just a normal guy or gal, what you express back and forth is little more than Social Networking. Let’s keep the term “media” where it belongs, and not apply it to what non-media people say and post to non-media or public figures like the vast majority of us. I don’t care what you hear through the airwaves, it’s not all Social Media.
- Last year on the day after the Super Bowl I wrote down a prediction of the Seahawks and Broncos for the 2014 Super Bowl. Lucky me. This year after that snoozer of a game, I wrote down the 49ers and Colts to matchup in the 2015 edition. As you make your predictions and hear others make theirs, add that one to the pile for what it’s worth.