MW: Obviously, this game is being billed as a clash of styles with a stout defense against an explosive offense, but beyond that story line, what do you find intriguing about this matchup?
SS: I’m going to be keeping my eyes on the MSU offense vs. the Oregon defense. Last week against FCS South Dakota, the Duck defense was a bit underwhelming giving up 172 net yards of rushing. Much of that was a result of bad tackling and linebackers not being in the correct spot to make plays. For the most part the defensive front did their job but as in all season openers (against lower tiered teams) it is a bit difficult to judge if that was poor preparation or simply players not taking the game as seriously as they would against a more evenly match team. The turnover-takeaway ratio is also going to be something to keep an eye on. Last week the Ducks did not record an interception. South Dakota was 18-for-34, 198 yards and no touchdowns. All the passes were short ranged, but there was some yardage gained after reception. The Coyotes fumbled twice with the Ducks recovering one of those fumbles. One other area I’ll be watching closely is special teams. Last week, freshman Charles Nelson returned his first punt reception 50 yards for a touchdown. The Ducks used several players on kickoff and punt returns but my guess is that Nelson may have won the punt return job with his performance last week. Oregon did not attempt a field goal, so the question of what kind of field goal kicker does Oregon have, remains to be answered.
Penalties were a bit of a problem last week as the Ducks were flagged nine times and lost 64 yards due to penalties. Penalties are to be expected in the first game of the season when jitters and the excitement of getting back on the field sometimes take over and I would expect to see far fewer penalties on Saturday.
MW: The weather in Eugune on Saturday is something that has been talked about in East Lansing the past couple days as preparations take place. How much of a factor do you think high temperatures can be and does that help Oregon in this game?
SS: I doubt that the heat in Eugene (expected to be in the 95 degree range) will be particularly an issue. If it is, both teams will be affected. Humidity is much lower in Oregon than it is in Michigan during the summer so the Michigan players may even enjoy it (as much as you can enjoy playing football in 95 degree weather.) Fans attending though, should be sure to wear a hat of some sort and drink lots of water.
Teams at the level Oregon and Michigan State all have great professional staffs that ensure the players are properly trained for heat to include proper hydration and nutrition before the game. If there is any concern for heat it is in the stands with the fans who may over imbibe in their favorite adult beverage before the game. Booze and sitting in the sun in 95 degree heat for an afternoon is not a great idea. The players for both teams are all in tremendous physical condition, are young with quick recovery times. Not so much the fans.
MW: Marcus Mariota is the headliner on offense, naturally, but it seems the challenge for Michigan State will be in managing the flurry of weapons in the backfield that Oregon utilizes. What is it that makes the Ducks so tough to stop on the ground and how can the Spartans do it?
SS: Oregon’s success running the ball is about execution. When we used to be able to go into an Oregon practice, we saw few plays and massive repetition. I don’t think you’ll see a lot of new plays being introduced. Oregon will run a zone-read and rely on Marcus Mariota’s decision making abilities. Before I go on any farther I should point out what one of the assistants said last year when asked about the play calling by offensive coordinator Scott Frost. The unnamed assistant coach said, that he meant no offense toward Frost, “but that as long as No. 8 (Mariota’s number) is on the field, his wife could call a great game.”
I think what will be frustrating for MSU is Mariota’s ability to somehow pick up first downs. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen him appear to be trapped and set to lose yardage then only to some how avoid being tackle and either find a receiver down field or out run defenders to pick up the necessary yardage for a first down. He is really, really good at that.
The running backs may be a committee with three terrific talents. Thomas Tyner likely will be the main ball carrier while Byron Marshall will be used in both the back field and in the slot as a receiver. Freshman Royce Freeman also demonstrated last week that he is like the other two backs, capable of going the distance anytime he touches the ball. All three are fast with Marshall being the most elusive but both Tyner and Freeman are big backs that can run over people.
The Duck offensive line was thought to have taken a big hit in fall camp when All-American Tyler Johnstone was knocked out with a torn ACL. However, the Ducks have plenty of depth on the offensive line and at least from what happened in the first game, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference in how they operate from previous seasons. The Duck offensive line isn’t the biggest you’ll see in terms of weight per man, but they are tall, quick players with long arms with the ability to move and move in unison. Plus they are very quick to line up and run plays.
MW: What are the three things that if Oregon does well, it will win this game?
SS: Oregon will have to control the line of scrimmage, execute and not turn the ball over giving MSU great field position in order to win.
A lot has been made about Oregon’s two losses to Stanford over the last two season and that if a team follows Stanford’s game plan, they beat the Ducks. Obviously that was true for Stanford but, what I saw in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio last December was a Texas team that had everything Stanford did and maybe a bit more. Regardless of what kind of season they had, it was Mack Brown’s last game as a college coach. It was a game played in San Antonio, making it like a home game for the Longhorns, and when I looked down that roster I saw a lot guys who are going to be on NFL rosters somewhere down the line. No matter what, that was still the Texas Longhorns, a team that would done with a recruiting class essentially the day after the previous year’s National Letter of Intent Day. They were a team on a mission but while the Ducks game up one long scoring drive, Oregon controlled the line of scrimmage, executed their offense and defense and won the turnover battle by getting two Pick-6’s.
That was last December of course and this is now, so we’ll see if the team that got frustrated and ran over by Stanford comes out or the team that dominated the Texas Longhorns in their legendary coach’s last game.
MW: What is your prediction come Saturday?
SS: My gut is telling me 31-24 Oregon.
I’m giving 3-points to the Ducks because the game is in Autzen Stadium, a venue known to be loud and rowdy. Fans will enjoy watching the game because you’ll essentially be right on the action. For those of us up in the pressbox, be sure to bring your binoculars as you’ll be about five stories above that playing field. The Duck fans pride themselves in being loud and have been a factor for some teams on offense with all the noise they generate.
Both teams are going to score and I’ll go back to my point about watching the Oregon defense. It doesn’t have to shut out anyone for Oregon to win football games. They just have to be effective enough to get the Duck offense back onto the field and get the ball back into Marcus Mariota’s hands.