Michigan State vs. Oregon Preview: A Battle Between Top-10 Teams

The season's first game between top-10 teams pits Oregon against host Michigan State.

Last season, Marcus Mariota and Oregon rallied at home to avoid an upset against Michigan State, prevailing in an early matchup of top-10 teams.

Saturday, the pregame script will be flipped, as Michigan State is the home favorite with the veteran quarterback, as the seventh-ranked Ducks take on the fifth-ranked Spartans in East Lansing.

Despite a two-score lead in the second half last season, Michigan State fell, 46-27 (though the game was closer than the final score indicates; the Spartans were within five at the start of the fourth quarter).

Both schools have playoff aspirations, with Michigan State looking to prove Ohio State is not the only title contender in the Big Ten, while Oregon is looking to return to the tournament in pursuit of an elusive national title.

What should we expect to see on Saturday?

When Michigan State Has the Ball

Michigan State’s defense may get the bulk of the attention, but its offense played an equally big (if not bigger) role in the school’s 11-2 campaign last year. The Spartans were third in the Big Ten in yards per play (6.55) and ranked fifth in yards allowed per play (5.09). They also finished 10th nationally in offensive efficiency (by Bill Connelly’s S&P+ metric), while coming in 22nd on defense.

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook put himself on the Heisman radar after throwing for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, averaging 8.8 yards per attempt and throwing only 8 interceptions.

With Cook leading the way, the Spartans passing game was equally efficient and explosive last season -- though in last week’s season opener, only the latter was true.

The senior passed for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 37-24 road win over Western Michigan. He was only 15-for-31 passing, though, good for a 48.4% completion percentage after completing 58.1% of his passes last season.

Cook still averaged 8.3 yards per pass thanks to some big plays, as he averaged over 17 yards per completion.

The Spartans passing attack could spell trouble for the Ducks defense, which struggled in its season-opening victory against FCS Eastern Washington.

In their 61-42 win, Oregon allowed 6.4 yards per play and 8.0 yards per pass. The Ducks ranked 79th in adjusted passing efficiency by our rankings and 122nd (out of 128 teams) by

Oregon was a top-40 pass defense in terms of both S&P+ and adjusted yards per play last season but lost starting safety Erick Dargan, who led the Pac-12 with 7 interceptions and made a team-high 95 tackles. Top corners Troy Hill and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu are gone as well, putting the burden on safety Reggie Daniels to lead the secondary.

Daniels, a junior, is the only player in the defensive backfield who is not a sophomore or freshman, and given this inexperience, it is conceivable last week’s struggles against Eastern Washington were not a one-week blip.

The Ducks will need their front seven, which has considerably more experience, to play at a high level. Defensive end DeForest Buckner leads the way, after recording a team-high 13 tackles for a loss as a junior last season. Per Connelly’s numbers, the Ducks were 36th in sack rate on passing downs last season (2nd-and-8 and 3rd- or 4th-and-5 or more), but 98th in sack rate on standard downs.

Cook was well protected regardless of down or distance last season, as Michigan State’s offense ranked 16th in passing down sack rate and 17th in standard down sack rate. All-American center Jack Allen and second-team All-Big Ten left tackle Jack Conklin return to the Spartan offensive line.

That group did a solid job leading the way for Michigan State’s running backs, as the Spartans rushed for nearly five yards per carry against Western Michigan. Opponent adjustments knock the Spartans down to a tie for 53rd in our adjusted rushing efficiency metric, but it was still a good debut for a young backfield that has to replace 1,522-yard rusher and his primary backup Nick Hill (both averaged over 5.5 yards per carry).

Against Western Michigan, true freshman LJ Scott rushed for 77 yards on 13 carries (5.9 yards per attempt), while redshirt freshmen Madre London and Gerald Holmes added 59 yards on 13 attempts (4.5) and 54 yards on nine carries (6.0), respectively.

It was a solid start, but the group still has a ways to go before it can duplicate a rushing attack that was 17th in rushing S&P+ last year.

Oregon held Eastern Washington to 111 yards on 31 carries (3.6 yards per carry) and was about average against the run last year (ranking 52nd in rush defense S&P+).

Overall, Michigan State looks to have the advantage in this matchup, thanks in large part to Cook and his ability to pick on a young Oregon secondary.

When Oregon Has the Ball

The advantage Michigan State will presumably have on offense will make it imperative for Oregon’s offense to keep up.

Vernon Adams, an Eastern Washington transfer who made his debut against his former school last week, is now the man in charge of what has consistently been one of the nation’s best (and fastest and most fun to watch) attacks.

Adams went 19-for-25 for 246 yards and two touchdowns in his Oregon debut, adding 94 rushing yards on 14 carries. Oregon averaged 8.9 yards per play.

Even with the substantial opponent adjustments that come against playing an FCS school, Oregon’s passing offense still ranked 24th in our adjusted passing efficiency metric.

Adams has done well in his limited experience against FBS schools (he posted a 92.3 Total QBR against FBS schools while at EWU, including a 97.2 mark against Washington and Oregon State), and will get a boost from arguably the nation’s best supporting cast. Oregon ranked second in offensive S&P+ last year, ranking fourth in passing and fifth on the ground, and returns nearly everyone at the “skill positions.”

This includes 1,000-yard receiver Byron Marshall, as well as top targets Devon Allen and Dwayne Stanford (though Allen missed the opener as he recovers from ACL surgery and is reportedly a “game time” decision Saturday).

Running back Royce Freeman is also back after rushing for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns as a freshman and ran for 180 yards and 3 touchdowns on 21 carries last week.

Fellow sophomore Kani Benoit added 83 yards on 11 carries, as the Ducks posted Week 1’s fourth-best game in our adjusted rushing efficiency stat.

Oregon lost a pair of All-Americans on its offensive line but returns veterans Tyler Johnstone at left tackle and Cameron Hunt at right guard. They also add Notre Dame transfer Matt Hagerty, giving the Ducks three former four-star recruits on their line.

It will all be a lot for Michigan State to handle, but Sparty is not exactly a pushover on defense, ranking 22nd in defensive S&P+ and tied for 20th in adjusted yards allowed per play last season.

Their strength was their run defense, where they were tied for eighth in the country in raw yards allowed per carry (3.17) and also ranked fifth in adjusted yards per attempt and led the nation in success rate against the rush, according to Connelly.

The Spartans also ranked 18th in adjusted sack rate in 2014 and could use the help up front this year. While Michigan State was not bad against the pass (ranking 31st in adjusted yards allowed per pass attempt), it lost corner Trae Waynes (a first round pick in the NFL draft) and safety Kurtis Drummond.

Defensive end Shilique Calhoun (8 sacks, 12.5 tackles for a loss in 2014) and linebacker Ed Davis (7 and 12) headline a front seven that returns a tremendous amount of talent. The group is off to a good start as well, allowing 4.7 yards per play against Western Michigan, including 0.8 yards per carry. They also notched 7 sacks for a loss of 41 yards.

What to Expect

Oregon has plenty of firepower, but Michigan State has the talent on defense at least to slow the Ducks. The same cannot be said about the Oregon defense, which could have its hands full against Connor Cook.

Vegas has Michigan State as a 3.5-point favorite and puts the over/under at 67.0 points, suggesting a final score of 35.25 to 31.75 in favor of the home team.

Given their advantage on defense, Michigan State could cause enough problems to limit Oregon's offense. If the Oregon defense can't contain Cook and the MSU offense, then it might be Oregon for a change struggling to put up enough points to keep pace on Saturday.