Michigan State one of the biggest games at Autzen Stadium in years

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY - Coach Mark Dantonio and the Michigan State Spartans got to celebrate victory over Stanford after last years Rose Bowl game. This week, theyll be at Autzen Stadium to take on another Pac-12 team, the Oregon Ducks. EUGENE — The eyes of the college football world will be on Auzten Stadium on Saturday, when Oregon plays Michigan State in one of the biggest nonconference games of the season.

In the preseason Associated Press poll, Oregon ranked third and Michigan State eighth. Both teams have national championship hopes. A loss wouldn’t necessarily derail either of them, because it’s a long season and a Pac-12 Conference and/or Big Ten winner could qualify for the four-team college football playoff.

Time was the college team from the Midwest state worthy of playing in such an enormous game would have been Michigan, but the Mark Dantonio-coached Spartans have taken over bragging rights in recent years. With a come-from-behind, 24-20 victory against Stanford in the Rose Bowl in January, the Spartans finished 13-1 last season, losing only to Notre Dame. Michigan State beat all of its Big Ten opponents, including Ohio State, by 10 or more points.

The Spartans have 15 returning starters, split between the offense, led by QB Connor Cook, and the vaunted defense coached by Pat Narduzzi.

Cook, the MVP of the Rose Bowl, threw for 2,755 yards and 22 TDs last year. The Spartans like to control games with the running game; Jeremy Langford (6-1, 210 pounds) had 1,422 yards and 18 TDs last season. Wide receiver Tony Lippett (6-3, 185) caught the game-winning TD reception in the Rose Bowl.

The defense has been phenomenal — allowing only 252.2 yards per game (86.6 on the ground) and 13.2 points last season. Key defensive players return in defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, linebacker Taiwan Jones and secondary players Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes.

Calhoun, Drummond and offensive lineman Travis Jackson are team captains.

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY - Like Oregon junior quarterback Marcus Mariota, Michigan State junior QB Connor Cook is considered a Heisman Trophy candidate, after going 12-1 in 13 games as a starter last season.Michigan State hasn’t won back-to-back Big Ten titles since 1965-66.

“That’s the pressure right there, being successful,” Calhoun says. “Not only that, but not having that drop. In history, Michigan State has had great years and then had letdown years. We don’t want to be a part of that. We want to start a new legacy of teams that are going to consecutively be great. Can we stay at the top and can we keep moving forward?”

• Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. clash will be the biggest nonconference home game in Eugene since 2006 (Oklahoma) and the biggest against the Big Ten since 2003 (Michigan). The Ducks won both. The Ducks have played 18 games against Big Ten schools since their recent football success started in 1989, going 12-6.

Oregon has won four of its past five games against the Big Ten, including a victory against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl after the 2011 season.

The Ducks beat Michigan State 48-14 at home in 1998 and lost 27-20 at Lansing, Mich., the following year.

• Offensive coordinator Scott Frost says UO spent ample time looking at Michigan State and other opponents in the offseason.

“In the summer before the season starts, we go through and make a preliminary plan on every team that has the same coaching staff returning,” Frost says. “We’ve gone back and watched tape on everybody we played last year and our preseason opponents. (In) game week, we’ll come back through and do a regular game plan and compare the two and take what we think is best out of all the ideas.”

• Cornerback Dior Mathis, one of two Michigan natives on the Ducks, says he realized Michigan State’s national ascension before he left Cass Tech High in downtown Detroit in 2010.

“I knew Michigan State would be a good team,” says Mathis, who simply wanted to leave his home state for college. “I’ll be playing against some people I played in high school. I still know those guys.”

Friends have asked Mathis about the Michigan State game, and whether it’s more special. His response: “I’m going to treat them like South Dakota or Wyoming. Everybody’s going to be the same to me.”

He remembers being recruited by Dantonio and assistants.

“Michigan State and that whole coaching staff was nothing but good to me,” he says. “Every single one of them. I wanted to get away. Nothing personal against any of them.”

With a bit of envy, Mathis watched Michigan State beat Stanford, knowing the Ducks had lost two times in a row to the Cardinal.

“It was cool to see,” he says. “We obviously want to beat Stanford, man. We gotta work even harder. They beat Stanford, we didn’t beat Stanford.”

• Offensive lineman Jake Fisher hails from Traverse City, Mich. Mathis says all the Midwest guys, including Ohioans Dwayne Stanford (Cincinnati), Troy Hill (Youngstown) and Pharaoh Brown (Lyndhurst) have bonded.

“We’re just alike, right by each other,” Mathis says. “Ohio and Michigan, they call us cousins.”

• Dantonio, who had a heart attack and missed games in 2010, has a 64-29 record in seven years at Michigan State; MSU has won 11 or more games in three of the past four seasons.

Narduzzi won the Frank Broyles Award last year as the country’s top assistant coach.

The Spartans have led the Big Ten in defense for three consecutive seasons. They ranked in the top three nationally last year in total defense, pass defense, rush defense and scoring defense.

“We have proven that we can compete consistently with the top teams in the country and will continue to dream big,” Dantonio says. “We need to embrace our preseason ranking and display the maturity it takes to manage that success.”

• The Ducks have led the Pac-12 in rushing for eight consecutive years, but their running back production sputtered at the end of last season, and even the offensive linemen criticized themselves about the push and blocking up front.

Adding bulk and strength on the line has been an emphasis, Frost says. That could help against an aggressive and physical Michigan State defense.

“We’ve been playing a little bit more physical,” Frost says. “Guys are coming off the ball better and getting some movement. Those guys have risen to the challenge.”

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY - Junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun, moving in for a tackle against Michigan, will be one of several leaders on defense for Michigan State when the Spartans take on Oregon Saturday at Autzen Stadium.• Oregon used its tempo, speed and conditioning to reach four consecutive BCS games, but opponents and teams around the country now prepare more for the fast pace, and many have added that element to their own game.

Is tempo still an Oregon advantage, such as against Michigan State?

“It makes a big difference,” Frost says. “It’s not catching as many people by surprise. But, it still give you an advantage; the defense doesn’t have time to get set and make adjustments.

“You have to pick your spots with your tempo. It’s dependent on how the game’s going. For the most part, we want to go fast all the time; sometimes, we’ll slow it down.”

• The Spartans are likely going to ground-and-pound with running back Langford — it’s a Big Ten team — and throw play-action passes with QB Cook.

Stanford and Arizona ran over Duck defenders last year. One would figure the Spartans took note.

“I think we’re just as physical as any team,” Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone says. “If you look at it, we’re not getting pushed back or anything like that. It’s just people getting out of their gaps and discipline things that we really excelled at during the offseason.”

Maintaining defensive discipline is about “more knowledge of the game,” Malone says. “Knowing where you’re supposed to be really takes out the missed assignments, blown assignments. Little things like that really help being disciplined.”

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