Michigan State turns to Stanford for blueprint on how to beat Oregon

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing – — When trying to find evidence of how to beat Oregon, there’s not exactly a lot to be discovered.

Since 2010, the Ducks have won more games — 48 — than any other Football Bowl Subdivision team. And in the last two seasons, they have lost just twice.

But as No. 7 Michigan State prepares for No. 3 Oregon on Saturday, there is at least one common theme it can draw on: Stanford.

The same team Michigan State wore down in last season’s Rose Bowl — a team similar in style and approach to the Spartans — is responsible for two of Oregon’s three losses the last two seasons.

The first was a 17-14 decision in 2012, the only blemish on Oregon’s record that season. Last year, the Cardinal held on for a 26-20 victory.

“I think Stanford’s a very good football team and they played very physical on that day (last season),” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “I don’t know if it’s a blueprint, but not too many people have beaten Oregon, so you could say that.”

Whether it is or not, you can bet Michigan State has spent plenty of time looking at Oregon’s games against Stanford, including 2010 and 2011 when the Ducks handed the Cardinal a pair of one-sided defeats.

“I think Stanford’s offense is a little bit more like us maybe than some of the other football teams,” Dantonio said. “So you can certainly see some of the things that they did there. But we’ll look at all the different games and try and draw something from every single football team that have played them in the hopes that we have the answers.”

Many of those answers could lie with the Michigan State offense.

Unlike the spread offenses that have taken over college football, the Spartans are more traditional, looking to establish the run first and control the ball.

“Teams that have had success against Oregon and teams that have beaten them, or come close to beating them, have run the ball fairly well,” Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. “Stanford has a smash-mouth mentality like we do, so we’re gonna watch that film and try and pick up some things they did and try to capitalize on them.”

As much as the Spartans hang their hat on running the ball, it’s the passing game that might end up being the difference.

“I think Michigan State is capable of putting up a big number on people,” Fox analyst Charles Davis said. “They’ve got some playmakers now out wide and I don’t think Michigan State has to just rely on pounding you into submission with the running game and then throwing on play-action. They can make plays with Connor Cook controlling the game as well as trying to run with Jeremy Langford.”

Not only will Michigan State’s offense have to put up plenty of points, it will have to do its part in helping the defense by hanging on to the ball. It was key for Stanford in its victory last season as it held the ball for nearly 43 minutes.

That doesn’t mean, however, the Spartans simply will hand the ball off and hope for the best.

“I don’t know that a whole lot changes because we try and always do that,” offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “Maybe it was a little more of a focus going into say the Ohio State game last year to try and keep their offense off the field. It was important to us and is similar to what we will try and do this week.”

The defense certainly will take the help, but their style lends itself to slowing the high-flying Ducks pretty well on its own.

And while Michigan State’s 4-3 alignment is different than Stanford’s 3-4 alignment, there are, again, reasons to draw some comparisons.

“The Oregon offense will throw the ball 5 yards down the field and they expect that to turn into a 15-yard gain by making somebody miss,” Davis said. “What Stanford does is attack you on the spot. Now, instead of picking up a first down in two downs, they’re in a third down. Now Michigan State plays the same way — sure-tackling, bring you down on the spot and make you run more plays.”

The Spartans also will try to put plenty of pressure on Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. That’s easier said than done against a player who is a Heisman Trophy favorite.

“People don’t get pressure on him,” Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. “You watch him back there, he’s back there sucking on the ball for a long time and so they don’t get pressure. He’s good at looking off his receivers and going from 1, 2, 3 (options) with the time he’s got. But he’s a leader and he’s composed.”