Wojo: Spartans armed for shootout with Ducks

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — There's always another level, and always a different way to get there. Of all the reasons for the Spartans' success, this is the secret one — they never stop looking.

The obstacles become fewer, but larger, the closer you get to the top. For now, Michigan State is staring at two, the only opponents it couldn't solve last season. It's no coincidence Oregon and Ohio State piled up points on their way to the national championship game, and both beat Michigan State in similar ways.

When Mark Dantonio hammers the "reach higher" mantra, this is what he's talking about, a gigantic Saturday might matchup against Oregon. To reach the next level, Michigan State couldn't just rely on a fierce defense and a pounding run game. In today's college football, you evolve or devolve, and sometimes perception lags behind reality.

The reality is, the Spartans still hit you, but that's not necessarily how they try to beat you. Their defense has issues, especially in the secondary, and the Ducks exploited that in a 46-27 victory a year ago. But the Spartans' offense is dangerously multi-dimensional, with no signs of letting up. Do you want to get into a shooting match with the mighty Ducks? Not really, but if required, they're equipped for it.

"I think we've got enough guys and enough talent on offense to where if we need to put up 40 points, or put up 50 points, we can do that," quarterback Connor Cook said. "I'm prepared for anything. The big thing is, we need to have long drives, hold onto the football and come away with points. I just want to redeem myself. I left some chips on the table last year."

Cook has to be great for Michigan State to be great, no doubt. He threw two interceptions as Oregon wiped out a 27-18 second-half deficit last season.

The losses to Oregon and Ohio State (49-37) stunted perceptions of Michigan State on a national scale, and I think Dantonio senses it. Perhaps that's why he opened his news conference Tuesday by pointing out Michigan State has won 27 of its past 30 games, in case anyone had lost track. If there was a nagging annoyance about the pedestrian 37-24 victory over Western Michigan, it wasn't evident.

Opening it up

With all the fast-tempo offenses and dual-threat quarterbacks, the days of smash-mouthing to championships are fading. Dantonio isn't afraid to admit it, and isn't reluctant to cut loose with an experienced quarterback and superb offensive line. Michigan State has picked up elements of Oregon's offense, as many programs have, and uses creative formations and calls to get the ball to its playmakers. It's about adapting, and the Spartans do it very well.

"I would probably say we felt like this since midseason of '13, that we could outscore people," Dantonio said. "We struggled a bit early, but since then, I think we've had enough firepower to do those type of things."

"Those type of things" include rallying from a 20-point deficit to beat Baylor 42-41 in a spectacular Cotton Bowl. That capped the greatest offensive season in program history, as the Spartans shattered single-season records, including most points (43 per game), yards and first downs. They're on a streak of nine consecutive games of 30-plus points, which not even the Ducks can match, thanks to their 42-20 loss to the Buckeyes.

Oregon also is seeking another level in its third season under Mark Helfrich. It added flashy quarterback Vernon Adams, who transferred from Eastern Washington and then beat his former team in the opener, 61-42.

Adams will be a load, and Michigan State's linebackers will have to tackle much better than a year ago, another adjustment. On offense, after losing their leading rusher (Jeremy Langford) and leading receiver (Tony Lippett), the Spartans have restocked.

They have three running backs — Madre London, LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes — who will take turns trying to become the main guy, and potential breakout receivers in Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton. Along with a batch of good tight ends, Michigan State isn't lacking confidence.

"Without a doubt in my mind, we can match any team in the country, point for point," tight end Josiah Price said. "Things are always changing, and you can't live in the past. I'd definitely say our mantra is still 'Pound Green Pound,' that's what we've been known for — great defense and an offense that gets the job done. But in the past few years, we've been changing that, if you actually watch the film."

Uh, we've noticed. Michigan State topped 500 yards seven times last season, which compensated for a defensive drop. With renowned coordinator Pat Narduzzi gone to the Pitt Panthers, the defense has some growing to do.

If the Spartans are to post another 11-victory season, the offense likely will lead the way. With standout linemen Jack Conklin and Jack Allen, and a quarterback considered by some the top NFL prospect, Pound Green Pound again will have to be Points Green Points.

"If you look across the board, I think our tailback situation is extremely healthy right now," Dantonio said. "I think our wide receiver situation is strong and getting stronger, and our tight end situation is extremely strong. I think our quarterback situation may be as good as there is in the country, to be honest with you."

Dantonio is never bashful, although he doesn't act is if he has the game all figured out. He talks a lot about evolving, something the Ducks — the Buckeyes — do so well. Michigan State might not have Oregon's speed or Ohio State's depth of talent, but if it's indeed getting closer, this is the perfect chance to show it.

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 3½

Series: Oregon leads, 3-2