Scouting Report and Prediction: #6 Michigan State (1-0 0-0) vs. #3 Oregon (1-0 0-0)
A look at this week’s opponent…
The Oregon Ducks are one of college football’s most successful programs in the last decade. They are not as innovative as some say, they are more old school. I will explain that more in the analysis of their offense. They have great players, good coaches, and super facilities, and this game will be a battle of epic proportions.
When MSU has the ball…
Oregon is a team lauded for their offense, but not their defense. One of the biggest losses was their DC who left after last season. He was very underrated. The Oregon offense is predicated on go go go and they could care less about time of possession. Their defense spends a monster amount of time on the field and is simply worn out from exhaustion. Their offense can perform the way they do because they don’t have to play as much as their defense.
The Spartans are going to come out on the attack. That doesn’t mean throw the ball 7,000 times, but it does mean attack. With the temperatures on the field approaching 100 degrees, the Spartans intention is to keep the ball and make Oregon’s defense stay on the turf while the Spartans punch them in the face.
Oregon struggles against teams with a pro style attack like MSU for the same reason that teams like MSU struggle with Oregon. They don’t see that every day in practice. MSU has been working on the Oregon system since spring and going back to Denard Robinson at Michigan, they have had great success game planning against teams like the Ducks.
The Ducks are going to load the box. They know that MSU just can’t run the ball down their throat and have a chance to win. The bad news for them is that MSU has weapons at TE, QB, and WR that want them to load the box. The Spartans’ skill players are praying to God every night that they do that. If Oregon loads the box, and I have no doubt they will, will the Spartans go immediately to the air? If so, MSU wins by two scores.
If the Spartans keep trying to establish a running game when there isn’t one, the game will be closer. Because of the weather, MSU has to run the ball, but Oregon will have to get out of that scheme when MSU rubs their noses in it with the pass. Look for the Spartans to come out on the attack and use the pass to establish the run.
Connor Cook has to be allowed to play his game. Foot off the brake and go. Dantonio understands how good his signal caller is and he can lead this team to a big win. Dantonio said of Cook, “I think Connor Cook picked up where he left off last year. He’s got great I’ve said it all through spring and all through fall camp, I think our wide receiver group is talented and deep, and I think you saw that. I think we have an identity at tight end now. We’ve got guys out of the backfield, as well, and I think Cook has got a great release, very strong arm. He’s big, he’s mobile, and there’s a lot of things that he can do that are untapped yet, and I really feel like some of that involved his running ability. But I think he’s an excellent quarterback, and he’s resilient, and he’s very confident.”
When MSU is on defense…
The Spartans have been salivating for this game. They want it. Now, there is an old adage that you better be careful of what you want, but they are ready. The Ducks make a living with “Explosive” plays. Those are plays that accumulate 25 yards of rushing or more. They had seven explosive plays last week alone and 67 last year; 21 of which ended in touchdowns. They make their living with explosive plays.
The Spartans do a terrific job of stopping those. I look for Oregon to get a quick score as the Spartans adapt the speed difference from Jacksonville State, but after the first two drives I expect MSU to be just fine.
I asked Dantonio about that very topic this week and the Ducks and he told me, “Big play ability is what you see with Oregon. They can be stopped for four or five plays and then all of a sudden hit a 70 yarder. You have to be able to take that away from them. We’ve been good at that lately with not giving up a lot of explosive plays, particularly last season. This year remains to be seen because there are so many games left, but that’s something we have to hang our hat on. When they don’t have explosive plays, people don’t lose too often.”
I talked with a DC who has coached against Oregon in the last two weeks who told me, “They don’t do 900 million different things. They just do them well. They don’t run this offense that is full of things never seen before. They run a lot of old stuff, but at a faster speed. MSU has the talent to beat them, if they aren’t too jacked up. Just stay in your lane and do your job. I don’t think Oregon has a clue how physical the Spartans are. You saw in the Rose Bowl that a good Stanford team was taken aback by it. If Stanford takes a step back at the physicality of the Spartans, the Ducks are going to take a taxi.”
MSU will use their quarters coverage in a man to man set, and the Ducks are going to attack the boundary flats. They want to lull MSU into their slants and boundaries, so when the Spartans least expect it, they can take off down the field. It’s a great strategy, but the Spartans aren’t slow and methodical. They play fast and are fine playing that game.
Dantonio talked about the schematics of this game and how important a Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush are on the edge. “Contain obviously is a big aspect of any football game when you’re trying to pen in a quarterback. They’re big, but just as much the guys who come in after them are in place for them at times have to equally be impressive because they’re going to be challenged. That’s just the nature of it. There’s a lot of things that they do schematically that puts pressure on them and puts people in conflict. You know, a run pass conflicts or a gap conflict as to how to play a particular gap or not, those things become issues that can create big plays. And you’ve got to play fast.”
Oregon loves a double running back set with three wides or even a one back pistol. The thing most of you aren’t used to is that on nearly every play they have at least one run and one pass option; often times two or three of each.
Going back to the DC I mentioned earlier, he told me, “They ran the same play out of the same formation on us five times in a row and each time they went somewhere they hadn’t before. Guys anticipate because of the past and try to react and they kill you.”
When the Ducks are in their favorite three wide out sets, they love to attack the boundary safety. The Spartans will be ready for that, but it still is good on good. One on ones and this is a chance for the Spartans No Fly Zone to send their stock soaring as NFL scouts are going to be all over this game.
The Ducks did their best to bulk up and add weight this year. The Spartans just maintained, so the Ducks are going to be playing at certain positions not as light as usual. That will be an adjustment for them. I look for MSU to use various formations of their VIPER package to bring pressure. By the time this game is over, Marcus Mariota and the Spartans DL are going to be on a first name basis.
Stanford and Auburn beat them by being aggressive. I AM NOT calling for anything dirty, but what YOU WILL see is every time Mariota has the ball, the Spartans are going to pound him and everyone who touches the rock. The Spartans want a physical street fight. The Ducks want finesse. The Spartans want to play this game in a phone booth and the Ducks want to play it on a runway.
In watching every game that Mariota has played at Oregon, many of them multiple times, there is a very important key. When you make a mistake he is brilliant at assessing it and making the read. The longer he holds the ball, the better off the Spartans will be.
As the DC mentioned earlier said, “Marcus is so smart. No one in all my years is even close to his ability to see information and make the right read. You can’t show him anything. You have to make him think and when he does, he is so smart, it slows him down.” I thought that was brilliant.
MSU can’t show anything. If a blitz is coming, they can’t televise it. Let him see things as they happen and not be allowed to anticipate it. He is brilliant and he can kill you if it comes down to your mind against his mind and you are giving him keys or tells.
When Mariota holds the ball and isn’t allowed to make quick reads, he does make mistakes. That is when MSU can’t drop an INT or let a missed tackle for 1 yard or two yards turn into a four yard gain. Assignment sound is the name of the game. When Mariota holds the ball, he takes risks and he makes mistakes.
Let me give you an example. In the first quarter of the Stanford game last year, the Ducks had the ball on fourth and goal with the game tied at zero and 8:39 on the clock. Out of the gun with one RB on his right, Mariota had three wideouts to his right and one to his left. The physical Stanford CB played up and tight coverage and forced the turnover. He didn’t worry about a wheel from the RB or a hit to the flat, he simply took care of his man. That is how MSU will win or lose this game.
In that game the highly loved and respected (rightfully so) Oregon offense didn’t score until the 10:11 point of the fourth quarter. They will bleed, like Ivan Drago; the Spartans just have to catch them to make it happen.
Of course the heat will play a factor, but both teams have to play in it. It is an incredible environment, but it is only 57,000 people once you add in standing room only. The Ducks have been told how pretty they are, how they are supposed to win, and have been praised and adored while the Spartans are getting zero respect.
Dantonio loves that. He plays that. He would not want it any other way.
With that being said and established, what happens if the Spartans keep it tight? I would expect Oregon to score early, but the longer MSU sticks around the pressure mounts on the Ducks and a restless fan base that still hasn’t accepted that Chip Kelly is not the coach. There are concerns (unfounded in my opinion) that Coach Mark Helfrich can’t win big games. Again, I don’t subscribe to that, but the Ducks base is asking a lot of questions.
I think the Spartans go in with nothing to lose. Oregon has everything to lose. MSU was in this position against OSU, Stanford, and every time they play Michigan. Everyone undervalues MSU and overvalues the sexier pick. The Spartans are what the state of Michigan is. Blue collar, hardworking, and ready to go to work is their mantra.
The Spartans aren’t stressed. The pressure is all on the Ducks. Dantonio said, “When you look at what we’ve been able to accomplish long term over the haul here, we put ourselves in a position to play this game and receive this type of notoriety to do it, and I want our players to have fun with this. I want them to be excited about this and our coaches, as well, and use this as a life experience, because that’s what this is all about. It’s really not about what you’re going to write or what some guy is going to feel off the streets. It’s about our players having a lifetime experience in this setting at this time in their lives that they’ll remember for the rest of their life, and if we do that and get excited about it and play hard, great things are possible, and that’s how we’ve always approached it.”
Dantonio addressed his team’s embracing of the big game. “I don’t really worry about that. We’ve played in big games; we’ve won away from home in every stadium in this conference. We’ve won our last three bowl games, played against good competition. We’ve been on a big stage at the Rose Bowl. We’ve been on a big stage with the championship games or at Penn State or wherever. I don’t really worry about that. I’m more concerned about getting the job done. I don’t think we’re going to go in there intimidated if that’s the question. But I worry about the accountability as we’ve just talked about and how we fit things defensively and not making mistakes that are going to really unforced errors or turnovers that are going to affect you on the offensive side of the ball.”
Remember the rule of five. If MSU wins that, this game is over. For those who don’t remember it, it has to do with sacks and turnovers. If the Spartans have three sacks and give up two that means they are plus one. If they then get four turnovers and give up only one that means they are plus three. That would give them a plus four for the day. They want to get to a plus five ratio at least every game.
Make no mistake MSU can lose this game. For that to happen they will have to make mistakes and play sloppy when it comes to their assignments. In the past that was more probable. For now the Same Old Spartans are disciplined, sound and they come ready to play.
I think Oregon gets two quick early scores and the Spartans settle down. I think MSU scores on their second drive and the game is a war from there on. Going into the fourth quarter I see Michigan State pulling away as the Ducks get tense and the pressure builds, and using the pass to set up the run, the Spartans take command and the win.
Make it 31-27 MSU wins!