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UO, MSU will put each other to test

Ducks' Mariota, freshmen look strong, set tone for season


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Can a freshman lead the Oregon Ducks to victory against highly ranked Michigan State? New running back Royce Freeman (center), celebrating a touchdown last week with Byron Marshall (left) and Darren Carrington, will get his second college shot in Saturdays showdown at Autzen Stadium.EUGENE — The Oregon-Michigan State game, 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Autzen Stadium (FOX), might have some influence on the first college football playoff — or it might not.

The winner has to navigate the rest of the season and stay unbeaten or, at least, make the conference title game — Oregon in the Pac-12 and Michigan State in the Big Ten (14 teams).

The loser, should it navigate the rest of the season unbeaten or close to it, still could make the conference title game. And, the winner of the Pac-12 and Big Ten title games are likely to be strong contenders for the four-team college football playoff.

So, as big as the game is, it might not be big in the grand scheme of things.

The coaches are talking down the significance of it.

“We’ll certainly find out where we are and where we’re going,” says UO coach Mark Helfrich, whose team routed South Dakota 62-13 last week to start the season. “(MSU) is a great program, very well-coached in every phase. They have marquee players in every phase. They played great in every phase in their opener (against Jacksonville State, a top-10 Football Championship Series team, 45-7 win).”

Adds QB Marcus Mariota: “It poses a good challenge for us, for the entire team. They’re coming in as one of best defenses in the country, and any offense would love to face that challenge, see where you stack up. We’re very excited.”

“This is an opportunity game,” says MSU coach Mark Dantonio, whose Spartans beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl in January. “This is an opportunity early in the season to see where we’re at as a program and go play a very good team away from home, which is always going to give you a different experience. We’re going to use this game to get ready for the rest of the season, just like we normally would. Win or lose, you know, we still have a lot of football games ahead of us, and we have to understand that that’s every bit as important as this one single game.”

• Ballyhooed freshman running back Royce Freeman passed the eye test against South Dakota, rushing for 75 yards on 10 carries to supplement Thomas Tyner (11 carries, 64 yards) and Byron Marshall, who had 90 yards rushing on eight carries and 138 yards receiving and two scores on eight receptions in a changed role.

Freeman, 5-11, 230 pounds, is quite put together, rivaling former Duck Jonathan Stewart in the physique department. He has the arms of a linebacker.

He’s looking like a star — if not now, then in the near future.

“At times he was tentative, which is 100 percent natural,” Helfrich says of Freeman’s first game. “Just to cut it loose will come with experience. His tentative is pretty good, but when he cuts it loose .... we’re excited about that guy.”

Freeman, from Imperial, Calif. (south of San Diego), said he just tried to relax and “not do too much out of my element.”

Mariota observed: “He stepped on to campus with kind of a confidence that you could tell right away — he believed in himself that he could do whatever he needed to do.”

• Marshall, the junior from San Jose, had been practicing as a slot receiver/slash player, a la former Duck De’Anthony Thomas and injured Duck Bralon Addison. While Mariota also threw to the likes of receivers Darren Carrington and Devon Allen and tight end Pharaoh Brown, he might have found a new favorite target in Marshall, especially with Addison out (knee) until at least late in the year.

“He’s very versatile,” Mariota says of Marshall. “We have an opportunity to use him wherever we need him. He’s done a great job of making the most of opportunities. He’s very sure-handed and is learning as much as he can at receiver, so he can be a key for us.”

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Can a freshman lead the Oregon Ducks to victory against highly ranked Michigan State? New running back Royce Freeman (center), celebrating a touchdown last week with Byron Marshall (left) and Darren Carrington, will get his second college shot in Saturdays showdown at Autzen Stadium.• Several true freshmen will play for the Ducks this year, including Freeman, punt returner Charles Nelson (who had a TD against South Dakota), and offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby, 6-5, 310 and from Henderson, Nev. He’s the second true freshman in as many seasons (Cameron Hunt, 2013) to play on the O-line.

“He’s very athletic, naturally explosive,” Helfrich says. “Made mistakes, but he’s done a bunch of good stuff. Ideally, you’re going to redshirt those (O-line) guys; if those guys are ready to go, we’re going to play them.”

• It was weird watching Aidan Schneider, a freshman from Grant High, handle the kicking chores — and freshman Ian Wheeler punt — when the Ducks sport a highly touted kicker/punter in Matt Wogan. Helfrich wouldn’t explain why Wogan didn’t do anything in the opener. “That will be a weekly decision,” Helfrich said. “We’re always going to play the best guys available.”