Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook will be scrambling Saturday to put up enough points against high-powered and third-ranked Oregon. (Dale G. Young)
East Lansing — There’s an unspoken benefit to winning road games and Big Ten titles and the Rose Bowl. Attitudes and perceptions shift, and magnitudes grow.
As Michigan State prepares for one of the biggest showdowns in college football this season, nothing should seem too big anymore. Beating Oregon on the road, where its up-tempo, no-huddle, all-speed attack could be especially daunting in expected 90-degree weather? It’ll be tough, but when the Spartans bring their defense, nothing is insurmountable.
From a program standpoint, few games have been bigger than the Big Ten championship victory over Ohio State last season, followed by the Rose Bowl triumph over Stanford.
From a national standpoint, this could be more significant for Mark Dantonio’s program. The Big Ten generally doesn’t win these cross-country games, and even solid defenses get gouged by Oregon. The Ducks are ranked third and the Spartans are seventh, yet Oregon is favored by nearly two touchdowns.
But if you pack a lunch with punch, the historically productive Ducks attack can be slowed. What type of team has slowed it? Not giving away any secrets here — it’s Michigan State’s type, which is similar to Stanford’s type. And Stanford has altered the national championship picture the past two years with low-scoring victories over Oregon.
You might recall, Michigan State out-Stanforded Stanford in a grinding 24-20 victory in the Rose Bowl. Certainly, you can question whether the Spartans can stuff Marcus Mariota’s big-play ability or avoid the mistakes that turn into 75-yard touchdowns. But I don’t think you can question their preparedness.
Since the Spartans launched their streak of three 11-victory marks in four seasons, the confidence has grown, and it’s nothing like false bravado.
“We’ve won away from home in every stadium in this conference,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “We’ve won our last three bowl games. 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 think we’re going to go in there intimidated, if that’s the question.”
Big Ten could use wins
It used to be the question. And if the Ducks roll, it will further the debate about the Big Ten’s unworthiness. There’s weight to the debate now because one of the five power conferences won’t get a spot in the new four-team playoff. Strength of schedule will be huge, which is why LSU’s 28-24 comeback win over Wisconsin was staggering, after the Badgers led 24-7 in the third quarter.
This weekend, Michigan plays Notre Dame in another clash that will help set Big Ten barometers. Same for Ohio State against Virginia Tech. Beyond that, the Big Ten doesn’t have any more non-conference showdowns, unless you count Nebraska-Miami.
It’s not Michigan State’s job to wrap itself in the Big Ten banner and fight for a larger cause. But hey, if Ohio State is hampered by Braxton Miller’s absence, and Michigan is going to be suspect until proved otherwise, and Wisconsin is going to blow a monstrous opportunity, and Nebraska and Penn State are going to simmer below the surface, Michigan State will be trusted with the conference’s honor, for now.
No one’s running from it, either. Commissioner Jim Delany told Sports Illustrated the Michigan State-Oregon game is “disproportionately important,” meaning one game can affect the 13-person playoff committee as it tries to measure conference strengths.
The Big Ten’s credentials aren’t exactly glittering, with two national titles the past 44 years — Michigan in 1997, Ohio State in 2002. Both were marked by defense and savvy quarterbacks. The sport has changed dramatically since then, but defense (stirred expertly by Pat Narduzzi) and a savvy quarterback (Connor Cook) are a formula with no expiration date.
Control the line
It’s how Stanford coach David Shaw, who took over for Jim Harbaugh, has maintained a power. Two years ago in Eugene, the Cardinal stunned the top-ranked Ducks, 17-14, in overtime. Last season in Palo Alto, the Cardinal hammered the No. 2 Ducks, 26-20, dominating the clock for 42½ minutes.
“If you control the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball, you can beat these guys,” Shaw said after that game. “We’re a big, physical football team that plays well together.”
Michigan State defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush will have to be disciplined against Mariota, a senior and Heisman Trophy favorite. Last season — the first under coach Mark Helfrich — Oregon averaged a school-record 565 yards. Against Stanford, Oregon collected 311 (although Mariota was dealing with a knee injury).
“You look at Oregon, and they are different from other spread teams,” Dantonio said. “I think they’ve had so much success, a lot of people are taking some of the things and imitating them. And then when you look at our defense, I think, again, it’s cutting edge. There’s not a lot of people who have played our defense in the past.”
Oregon’s fast-paced offense, with multiple formations, backs and receivers, dares a defense to take chances, then pops a big play. Michigan State’s defense, with its rampant blitzing and tight coverage, loves to take chances, and dares you to burn it.
Dantonio says this game isn’t an “end-of-the-world-type situation,” and that’s necessary perspective. It’s not the end of anything, even in defeat. And with the Spartans these days, there’s always the chance it’s the start of something even bigger.