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MSU must find way to clip high-flying Ducks offense

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — When Michigan State walked off the field at Autzen Stadium last season, the game it had just played was a blur of bright yellow — Oregon players streaking down the field in a blitz of big plays and second-half scoring.

The big plays came early, and even after Michigan State battled back to take a third-quarter lead, quarterback Marcus Mariota worked his magic in the second half as the Ducks overwhelmed the Spartans, closing the game with 28 straight points.

Mariota used the game to springboard himself to the Heisman Trophy, while Oregon ended up playing for the national championship. Michigan State walked away feeling the momentum for its season had been lost.

“I was sick,” said safety RJ Williamson, whose first-half miscue led to a 70-yard touchdown pass from Mariota to Devon Allen. “I felt like we just lost the national championship because I knew how big of a stage that was, I knew the whole world was watching and I knew how close we were to finishing and winning that game.

“When we were up, I thought we had them. They got the ball kind of rolling a little bit and once it started rolling we couldn’t stop it and they won. I felt like we let them get away with one. ... You just wish you could go back and correct those things, and we have that chance to do that Saturday. I look at is as a redemption game.”

To find that redemption, the fifth-ranked Spartans will have to solve a Ducks offense that looks a lot like last season. Mariota is gone, but in his place is fifth-year senior Vernon Adams, a graduate transfer from Eastern Washington who threw for 246 yards and ran for 94 in the opener.

And he has virtually all the weapons at his disposal Mariota did.

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Sophomore running back Royce Freeman, who scored twice in the fourth quarter against Michigan State, is coming off a 180-yard effort in the opener, when he scored three touchdowns.

“He’s real good,” Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “He keeps his shoulders square, jump-cuts and gets vertical as good as we’ve seen. He’s the type of guy where as a linebacker you cannot fall back from your gap until the ball is already crossed the line of scrimmage because if he bends it back and you fall back he is gonna jump-cut and hit your gap, hit your window. So you have to be disciplined.”

And while Allen is still a question mark as he recovers from knee surgery, the receiving corps is loaded.

Byron Marshall is the only player in Pac-12 Conference history with 1,000 rushing yards in a season and 1,000 receiving yards in another. He scored last week and had four receptions, and is getting a boost this season from the return of Bralon Addison, who missed last season with a knee injury. Addison, who also scored in the opener, had 60 catches for 890 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013.

Tying it together is Adams. He’s not the passer Mariota was, but still is the type of player who can make things happen with his feet. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio sees a lot of Russell Wilson in Adams.

“What I saw Russell Wilson do is improvise very effectively when he played us,” Dantonio said of the former Wisconsin quarterback. “You see him do that on a weekly basis. I think that’s what you see Adams do. He can improvise. ... His quick body is powerful.”

And though Adams is new to the Oregon system, that doesn’t mean there will be a change in the offensive philosophy. The Ducks are still going to go at a fast pace, something that gave the Spartans problems last season.

“When we timed how fast it was between plays they were actually a second or two faster on average than the games we had broken down,” Tressel said. “So they’re moving. Is it a little bit simpler? I’m sure it is. Mariota is a first-round, big-time player who’d been in the offense for five years. Now you have another experienced player but not experienced in that offense. ...

“There’s probably a few less plays on their call sheet, but it’s fast still.”

Michigan State got better at facing fast-paced teams as last season went on, culminating with a Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor. Now the players believe they’ll be prepared for what Oregon brings.

“I thought we left some plays out there last year that we are more than capable of making,” said Michigan State linebacker Darien Harris, who was unable to bring down Mariota on a key third-down conversion in the third quarter last year.

“I was pretty disappointed in myself for not making some of them. But we have a new opportunity.”

If they seize that opportunity, the redemption they seek could be there. And if it is, the feeling they had in Eugene will be a distant memory.

“This game is one that’s been circled on my calendar,” Williamson said. “This team beat us last year and we have a chance to go out here Saturday and redeem ourselves.”



Oregon at Michigan State

Kickoff: 8 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: ABC/WJR

Records: No. 5 Oregon 1-0, No. 7 Michigan State 1-0

Line: Michigan State by 3 1/2

Series: Oregon leads 3-2 (Oregon 46-27, Sept. 6, 2014)

Did you know? This is the third home-and-home series between the teams. The home team has won every game.