When the clock struck zero on No. 8 MSU’s (1-0 overall) 45-7 win against Jacksonville State, Spartan players could shift their focus to the game that Spartan fans have had in their mind all summer.
The Spartans fly out to Eugene, Ore., on Thursday for their Saturday night clash with the No. 3 Oregon Ducks (1-0 overall) — a top-10 battle that has been labeled as an early season game with playoff-impacting potential.
College football analysts Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and Lee Corso will be in Eugene with ESPN College GameDay.
“This is an opportunity game,” Head Coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday. “Win or lose, you know we still have a lot of football ahead of us, and we have to understand that that’s every bit as important as this one single game.”
With the advent of the new college football playoff that will include only four teams, this top-10 game could be an elimination game according to some experts.
Dantonio said it is too early to talk about the playoffs, but he was proud of the way the Big Ten represented itself last weekend. Many experts believe the Big Ten champion could be on the outside looking in when it is time to announce the four teams.
“I thought the Big Ten represented itself (Saturday), but ... it’s only two games in,” he said. “We were nowhere to be found at this time last season. I think it’s all way too early to be making assumptions on any football team.”
Recapping Jacksonville State
Although fans were looking past the Jacksonville State Gamecocks (0-1 overall), Dantonio insisted the Spartans would not.
Dantonio called Friday’s opening win over Jacksonville State a “statement game,” against the FCS opponent that went 11-4 last season. MSU made statements early and often as they carried a 38-0 lead into the half, behind the arm of Connor Cook and his three touchdowns. Cook completed all but one pass for 285 yards.
“Statistically, I think he played really well, he did pretty much what we expected,” Offensive Coordinator Dave Warner said. “Obviously the big plays resulted (in touchdowns) but I think he did a good job of managing the game.”
The happy faces of Connor Cook and senior wide receiver Tony Lippett following the opening game was a new sight for those in the newly-renovated Tom and Lupe Izzo Family Media Center. Last season, the Spartans stumbled in a sloppy 26-13 win against Western Michigan that saw the offense sputter under the control of former quarterback Andrew Maxwell.
Lippett said the secret to the offensive success isn’t very complicated. The players have put the work in to make the improvements that they have.
“We’ve been put through a lot of work,” Lippett said. “We are trying to keep getting better after every game.”
With the game being well in hand by halftime, both teams were able to play more of their players than if the score was close. MSU played more than 70 players, something Dantonio was happy about.
This allowed backups to get important snaps, and some might have cemented more playing time in the future. Senior running back Nick Hill, who has battled inconsistency at times during his career at MSU, scored two touchdowns and gained 49 yards on 11 carries.
“Experience helps,” Hill said. “Now I’m ready defense and I remember stuff from film, having experience helps any player.”
Senior offensive lineman Travis Jackson and junior wide receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. were injured during the game. Dantonio would not comment on their status for Saturday or the rest of the season.
Every player or coach would say they weren’t overlooking Jacksonville State by thinking about Oregon, now no one has to pretend. MSU has the Ducks on their brain.
“There’s no question looking to our next opponent, Oregon is very talented,” Dantonio said. “This is an opportunity to play on the road in a hostile environment.”
Following the win, MSU players and coaches were asked about Oregon. The players said they were going to take 24 hours, watch the film of the game and focus on Oregon later.
“We’ll first correct this game (Jacksonville State),” senior safety Kurtis Drummond said. “We’ll have time to look to Oregon.”
The embargo of talking about MSU’s trip out west was broken when Dantonio spoke about the Ducks to the media Sunday.
He said the offense of Jacksonville State, which gained 244 yards of total offense, and Oregon are similar but not identical.
“Some of the aspects they do are similar to Oregon,” he said. “Certainly just playing an up-tempo offense when they’re trying to go as fast as they can ... it’s as much a conditioning factor as anything.”
Oregon is known as an offense that wants to run a lot of plays as quickly as possible.
The offense, birthed by current Philadelphia Eagles Head Coach Chip Kelly, has been incredibly effective over the years.
In 2013, Oregon was the fourth-highest scoring offense in the country to the tune of 45.5 points per game.
They return their Heisman Trophy candidate junior quarterback Marcus Mariota this season. Mariota, similar to Cook, did not play in the second half of his team’s 62-13 win against South Dakota.
“This is an opportunity for us, number one, to see where we are as a program,” Dantonio said. “We’re going to use this game as a game to get ready for the rest of the season, just like any other game.”