A top-10 showdown takes center stage in the Pacific Northwest this Saturday, as the seventh-ranked Michigan State Spartans come calling on the third-ranked Oregon Ducks.
Both teams had an easy time of it in their respective season openers, with Michigan State dispatching Jacksonville State (45-7), and Oregon whipping South Dakota (62-13).
Michigan State is the defending Big Ten Conference champion, and coach Mark Dantonio's squad is hoping for a repeat performance as it prepares for what should be another treacherous league slate. Following this clash, the Spartans return home to take on Eastern Michigan and Wyoming, then host Nebraska in the Big Ten opener on Oct. 4.
The Ducks, who won their third straight season opener and will start with three straight home games, will also play Wyoming (Sept. 13), and then get right into Pac-12 Conference action when they visit Washington State a week later.
The all-time series between these two is knotted at 2-2, with the home team winning each time. The last tussle took place in the 1999 season opener, with Michigan State taking a 27-20 decision in East Lansing.
Michigan State imposed its will from the outset in last week's rout of Jacksonville State, amassing 565 yards of total offense, compared to only 244 for the visitors.
Quarterback Connor Cook was nearly perfect in hitting the mark on 12-of-13 pass attempts for 285 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Tony Lippett certainly made the most of his opportunities, turning four catches into 167 yards and a pair of scores.
The run game was solid in that it generated 211 yards and three TDs, but there wasn't one specific guy who carried the load. In all, 10 guys logged at least one carry, with Jeremy Langford leading the way with 57 yards on 13 totes. Nick Hill scored twice, and the Spartans totaled 25 first downs, did not turn the ball over, and came away with points on all five of their trips to the red zone (four TDs).
Defensively, MSU stacked the line of scrimmage and allowed the Gamecocks a mere 22 net rushing yards on 25 attempts. That effort of course, was aided by the five sacks the team had, resulting in a loss of 49 yards.
The Spartans proved to be an opportunistic bunch in coming up with three interceptions. Darien Harris paced the unit with five tackles, while six others finished with four. MSU was credited with seven TFL.
Dantonio was happy with the overall effort of his team in the opener, but knows you can't dwell on that one performance.
"I thought we made a statement. We wanted to make sure that we weren't flat coming out and I don't think we were, other than the first play of the game. We played very crisp. Connor (Cook) was very effective in the first half and then we pulled him after that. We moved the ball very, very effectively. We can probably run the ball a little bit better than we did, although I thought Nick Hill did some very nice things in there. No turnovers and very few penalties, we stopped them on fourth down and forced a few turnovers. Based on that, I think we came out and did what we needed to do. We played a dominant football game, and we will now move on to the next one."
Oregon's win over South Dakota was certainly impressive, and the play of Heisman hopeful quarterback Marcus Mariota really stood out. Mariota tossed three touchdown passes, tying Darron Thomas for the school's career record (66). Mariota also extended his streak of throwing at least one TD to 27 straight games (every game of his career), and with four total TDs (he added one on the ground), the gifted signal caller broke a tie with Joey Harrington for most total touchdowns in UO history (82 -- 66 passing, 15 rushing, one receiving).
Helping Mariota succeed down the field was Byron Marshall, who posted career- highs with eight catches and 138 yards. He also had a game-high 90 yards on the ground. Royce Freeman added 75 yards and a pair of TDs.
The Ducks were perfect in the red zone (5-of-5, all TDs), and they went 7-of-9 on third-down conversion attempts. The special teams even got in on the scoring, as Charles Nelson returned a punt 50 yards for a TD midway through the third quarter, becoming the first freshman in the school's modern era to return a punt for a score.
While the offense was clicking along, the Oregon defense showed signs of weakness by allowing South Dakota 120 yards on the ground in the first half alone. In all, the Coyotes tallied 370 total yards, but gave up three sacks.
The Ducks were almost doubled up in time of possession (39:04 to 20.56), meaning the defense was on the field for an extended period of time. As a result, 27 guys logged at least one tackle, with Erick Dargan and Reggie Daniels leading the way with seven stops each. Alex Balducci made two of his four tackles behind the line of scrimmage, as Oregon finished with six TFL in all.
Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich too was pleased with the outcome of the opener, but knows tougher tests await, starting this week.
"We'll be excited to compete. They played great in every phase in their opener. And we're excited to get back out in front of the Autzen fans as well. We'll need them as we get ready for these guys."