August 31, 2014 at 10:09 pm

Mark Dantonio: Matchup with Oregon 'an opportunity to see where we're at as a program'

East Lansing — For most of the off-season, Michigan State has avoided talking about their matchup with Oregon.

As huge as Saturday’s top-10 showdown will be — full of early season hype, ESPN GameDay on hand, playoff implications and conference pride — the Spartans had another game on which to focus. Jacksonville State came first and, with the Gamecocks one of the better teams at the FCS level, looking ahead would likely have been a poor strategy.

But after a 45-7 victory on Friday, all the focus can turn to Oregon as No. 8 Michigan State prepares to travel to Eugene, Oregon, this weekend to face the third-ranked Ducks in the marquee non-conference game of the season.

And while coach Mark Dantonio understands the significance of the game, he’s not about to concede that the season begins and ends on Saturday.

“This is an opportunity game,” he said in his weekly teleconference Sunday. “This is an opportunity early in the season to, No. 1, see where we’re at as a program and go play a very good team away from home, which is always going to give you a different experience. We’ve got to travel a long ways to do it and play in a hostile environment, which we’re going to have to do later on.

“We’re going to use this game as a game to get ready for the rest of the season, just like we normally would. Win or lose, we still have a lot of football games ahead of us, and we have to understand that’s every bit as important as this one single game.”

Dantonio had little to be critical of in the opener and said the key now for the Spartans will be carrying the momentum into the next game. They’ll head West on Thursday — a day earlier than most trips — and Dantonio said there likely won’t be any extra preparation for temperatures that could reach 90 degrees.

Instead, the focus will be on slowing the Oregon attack and what the Michigan State lineup might look like.

Fifth-year senior guard Travis Jackson was lost to injury in the third quarter against Jacksonville State and junior wide receiver Macgarrett Kings also went down with what appeared to be an ankle injury. Junior quarterback Connor Cook took a shot to the knee early in the game but returned and senior running back Jeremy Langford also hurt his ankle.

Cook and Langford both said after the game they were fine, but the outlook for Jackson and Kings was less clear. Dantonio didn’t talk about them after the game and offered no news Sunday.

“Nope, I can’t tell you a thing about those guys,” he said. “Sorry.”

The silver lining is Dantonio typically only reveals specifics of an injury if they are long-term. That seems, at least, like it isn’t the case for Jackson and Kings — for now.

Replacing Jackson would be the most pressing issue for the Spartans. True freshman Brian Allen stepped in Friday while junior Brandon Clemons, who switched from defense late in preseason camp, could also get a shot.

“Brian Allen, for his first time, played a lot of football,” Dantonio said, “and played like a freshman at times. But he’s very, very solid. He played 34 snaps, so being thrown in there in the midst of everything and having to understand the checks and do the different things, he’s going to be a very good player for us, and he’s going to get better and better.”

Allen was one of six true freshmen to play in the opener and each did some good things, including defensive tackle Craig Evans, linebacker Chris Frey and defensive end Montez Sweat, who recorded a sack.

But safety Montae Nicholson, who had a big hit on the opening kickoff, and defensive tackle Malik McDowell drew the most praise.

“I think that Montae Nicholson played very well,” Dantonio said. “He had the opening hit on the kickoff, which was very impressive, and I thought he ran down well on kickoffs and did some good things on special teams, and I thought he got a lot of snaps in the fourth quarter, so I think he took a big step.

“You saw Malik chasing a couple guys down and that type of thing, so he played with some effort there, but he’s got to be constant.”

Dantonio said the jury is still out on whether to redshirt a couple of other first-year players, including freshman running back Madre London and junior college transfer Miguel Machado, an offensive lineman.

“Injuries weigh into that, and I just felt like we wanted to hold Madre London,” he said. “He’s a very good tailback, but I don’t really want to just play him for a couple plays. We’ve got to let things show itself before that decision is made, I think.

“And then the same with Machado. … we could redshirt him, as well. But those decisions will be made during games. They’ll be game-ready. We’ll see what happens as the games unfold, but they’ll travel with us, those two guys.”

Michigan State at Oregon

Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon

TV/radio: FOX/WJR

Line: Oregon by 11

Records: No. 8 Michigan State 1-0; No. 3 Oregon 1-0

Series: Tied 2-2 (Last 1999 — Michigan State won at home, 27-20)

Did you know? It is the first regular-season matchup of top-10 teams for Michigan State since the infamous 10-10 tie game with Notre Dame in 1966.

Connor Cook injured his knee Friday, but came back into the game and was effective. No word was given Sunday if the injury may hinder him against Oregon. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News