East Lansing — As Michigan State narrowed its focus last week on Western Michigan as it transitioned from preseason camp to game preparation, the players and coaches insisted the Broncos were the only opponent on their minds.
It’s understandable and something Michigan State has at excelled at under coach Mark Dantonio — not looking past any opponent on the schedule. The Spartans did that, beating the Broncos, 37-24.
But, as linebacker Riley Bullough admitted mid-week, the big games are on the players’ minds through those “invisible mornings” Dantonio talks about. During winter conditioning or going through a difficult session in the weight room, those are the times where teams like Oregon and Ohio State come to mind.
That was the motivation this offseason for the Spartans, whose only two losses last season came to the two teams that played for the national championship. In those two games they missed out on their shot at reaching the playoffs and having a chance to play for a national title.
That is the goal, and the first chance Michigan State gets at avenging one of those defeats is Saturday when No. 7 Oregon comes to Spartan Stadium. It will be the first time the teams have met since the Ducks’ 46-27 win last season in Eugene. The Spartans started fast and led 27-18 in the third quarter before the Ducks exploded for 28 straight points.
That performance was a huge motivator this offseason.
“That loss last year stunk and it stuck with us,” said senior quarterback Connor Cook, who threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns last season vs. Oregon. “Looking back, just how close we were, playing so great in the first half and coming out and not doing so well in the second half, stuff like that sticks with you. What hurt even more was to see them make the playoffs and the national championship game and play Ohio State, another team we lost to. Seeing those two teams playing for the national championship wasn’t the best thing.
“So we emphasized that the whole offseason, the losses to Oregon and Ohio State. Doing stuff in the weight room whether it was one more rep or another workout, dedicating that stuff to the loss last year when it was so close. The whole offseason — spring ball, summer, whatever — we definitely referred back to those games and we have done a little extra just to prepare for those games.”
This game is as big as they come, much like it was last season. Both teams are ranked in the top 10 in the nation and expect to make an early statement in the race for the playoffs. Throw in the presence of ESPN’s “College GameDay” to document the hype and all eyes will be on East Lansing.
Neither team, however, is totally confident in the way it played last week. Both defenses had their issues last week as Oregon allowed 42 points to Eastern Washington while Michigan State had its share of breakdowns.
But senior transfer Vernon Adams was outstanding at quarterback for the Ducks and he said Monday he’ll be ready on Saturday after getting knocked out of the game last week after an illegal hit. The former Eastern Washington star threw for 246 yards and ran for 94.
He’s not unlike the difference in last season’s matchup — Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.
“I think he’s a good quarterback,” Michigan State safety RJ Williamson said. “He played pretty well and he’s a great athlete, does a lot of things similar that the last quarterback did, as well. I think he’s not as athletic as the quarterback was last year, but he still makes plays in the running game as well as the passing game. We have to be focused like we were last year … or even more focused this year to get the win on Saturday.”
Focus is one thing, and judging by what several players said on Monday, conditioning will be a factor, as well, taking on the fast-paced offense the Ducks employ.
But what the Spartans really learned from last year’s matchup when things went south in the second half is simple.
“We gotta finish. We gotta finish,” Cook said. “I think it was after our second drive of the third quarter we went down for the field goal and didn’t score the remainder of the game.
“I think a lot of it fell on my shoulders, just not executing, not getting it to the playmakers and missing some guys and taking a sack here and there. I just need to have that in the back of my mind and keep thinking about it this week and emphasize it all through practice and throughout the week.
“If that means watching more film with the guys, staying after practice and getting more reps … just constantly emphasizing that and making that the focal point of the week — finishing.”
Oregon at Michigan State
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
TV/radio: ABC / WJR 760
Records: MSU 1-0, Oregon 1-0
Line: Michigan State by 31/2
Series: Oregon leads, 3-2 (Oregon 46, Michigan State 27, Sept. 6, 2014)
Did you know? This is the third home-and-home series between Michigan State and Oregon. The home team has won every game.