This is the game everyone has been circling on their calendars for months.
The game that, regardless of what anyone believes, has been in the back of the players’, coaches’ and fans’ minds.
The game that could lift MSU into the conversation of legitimate national championship contender.
On Saturday afternoon, No. 7 MSU will travel to No. 3 Oregon in a cross-country, non-conference battle of marquee programs that is sure to make an impact on the 2014 college football landscape.
“Every game on a big stage we play creates another opportunity for Michigan State and our football program to make a statement,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “...We’ve taken the right steps to try and get into a game like this so that people can say, ‘hey, if they win this football game, it sends you further up the ladder.’”
When MSU lines up on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. EDT, it will have the tall task of taking down one of college football’s monsters in the not-so-friendly confines of Autzen Stadium.
Whether it be ESPN’s College GameDay coming to Eugene, or MSU’s stout defense against Oregon’s always explosive and quick offense, there are a number of intriguing storylines that surround this top-ten matchup. But for the players, the most exciting element of Saturday’s game is that it’s finally here.
“We’re just trying to go in there against a good opponent, big-time opponent, big-time environment, big-time atmosphere, and we’re just focused on winning,” junior quarterback Connor Cook said.
One would have to live under a rock to follow college football and not know about the Oregon Ducks’ junior quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Heisman candidate is the key piece in Oregon’s quick-paced offense that ranked in the top ten in total and scoring offense last season, and contains the ability to beat teams with his arm and legs.
The dual-threat quarterback kicked off the 2014 campaign with 267 passing yards, 43 rushing yards and four total touchdowns in only one half of play against South Dakota — all of this coming after compiling 4,380 total yards and 40 total touchdowns a year ago.
While there’s a lot of good about Mariota’s play, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi points to his ability to stay composed and avoid the pressure to make big plays.
“People don’t get pressure on him. I mean, watch him back there, he’s hanging back there sucking on the ball for a long time so they don’t get pressure,” Narduzzi said. “He’s good at looking off his receivers and going from one, two to three with the time he’s got, but he’s a leader and he’s composed. You never see him get rattled and that’s a bonus for them.”
Dantonio also gave praise to Mariota this week, comparing him to Ohio State senior quarterback Braxton Miller, who is currently the two-time reigning Big Ten Graham–George Offensive Player of the Year award winner.
However, MSU defeated Miller last season in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game , holding Miller to only 101 passing yards in the contest. Miller did break the Spartans’ continue multiple times for 142 rushing yards, making it crucial that starting defensive ends junior Shilique Calhoun and senior Marcus Rush have a better outing on Saturday.
“Contain, obviously is a big aspect of any football game when you’re trying to pen in a quarterback,” Dantonio said. “They’re big, but just as much (are) the guys who come in after them, (or) are in place for them, at times have to equally be impressive.”
Pulling Out All the Tricks
It’s safe to say this game isn’t like any other when MSU’s coaching staff is pulling out all of its tools and tricks during the week of preparation.
MSU went as far as turning up the heat and practicing indoors on Tuesday to help simulate the projected 90-plus degree weather forecast for Eugene, Ore. on Saturday. Calhoun said he was unsure how hot the indoor practice facility got, but jokingly said it reached 150 degrees.
The heat wasn’t the only outside condition being simulated on Tuesday, with speakers blasting loud, crowd-like noise to create a similar feel of what MSU will endure at Autzen Stadium. Calhoun has played in his share of hostile environments during his time with MSU, and said he has been harping on focus to younger players this week to cancel out the crowd’s presence.
“Focus, that’s the biggest thing,” Calhoun said. “Don’t let the crowd get to you, they’re not out there on the field. They can’t physically harm you out there. All they can do is mentally (affect you) maybe, if your mental capacity isn’t up to par, but they’re not on the field.”
Perhaps even more important for MSU in preparation for the Ducks was its opening week opponent, Jacksonville State. While Dantonio has said dual-threat redshirt freshman quarterback Damion Terry will be used this week as a Mariota scout team replica, junior cornerback Trae Waynes said the week one matchup against the Gamecocks’ no-huddle offense was even more beneficial in preparation for Oregon.
“It was good because they’re also fast-paced,” Waynes said of Jacksonville State’s offense. “They’re not as fast, but it helped us get ready for this game.”
Despite what Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich is saying about MSU standing as a challenging opponent for the mighty Ducks, the experts in Las Vegas see it differently.
MSU opened up the week as a nearly two-touchdown underdog by some betting outlets and as a large spread for a battle between a couple of top ten programs. The same can be said for the amount of attention the Oregon offense has received in comparison to the “Spartan Dawgs,” but that isn’t something senior free safety Kurtis Drummond is focused on.
Drummond said he is boxing out all of the talk and extracurricular things coming from the media, and is ready to prove on Saturday where his defense stands.
“Guys can do all the talking they want before the game and have their picks and predictions, but that’s why guys line up and play the game — to show what’s really going to happen,” Drummond said. “We have a great group of guys on this defense and I really don’t think we get the credit that we should get. Come Saturday we’ll definitely be prepared for the challenge we have.”
Calhoun is using the disrespect the Spartans are getting from some media and betting sources as motivation this week. It might be hard for a top-ten team to play with a chip on its shoulder, but that is exactly how Calhoun is tackling this week, looking to continue last year’s mindset that led MSU all the way to Pasadena.
“We get that year in and year out, so it’s no different this year and we don’t look at it any differently,” Calhoun said. “That’s just a chip on our shoulder...as they obviously don’t see us as a legitimate team, so we got to come in week-in, week-out and show them. And this is just another week that we have to go and prove ourselves.”