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Oregon Ducks vs. Michigan State Spartans preview: The Game of the (new) Century

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A year removed from Round One of the home-and-home showdown, Oregon and Michigan State square off Saturday night at Spartan Stadium -- with momentum, bragging rights and playoff positioning on the line.

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Last week the question, ‘How good is this kid from the FCS’ was posed in my preview.

Fortunately, the answer appears to be "really."

Unfortunately, the other question, about the defense’s ability to hold up on the back end, still appears murky. After Eastern Washington, with its first-and-second string QB’s seeing action, torched the Oregon defense for 438 yards through the air, the big question this week is, Can Oregon slow down Michigan State just enough to escape East Lansing with a win?

If they do, it will be a remarkable turnaround.

Don Pellum’s unit can never be judged solely on stats; when your offense moves at the rate Oregon’s does, you’re going to give up lots of yards – there’s no way around it. Oregon has always prided themselves on their ability to keep the opponent from scoring -- not from chewing up yards -- but that took a hit last week when the Eagles put up 42 points.

Was it an anomaly? Or a scary trend brewing?

We could throw the first week out for both teams, and I don’t think either side would mind. Michigan State didn’t look especially sharp, either, in beating up on Western Michigan; namely, quarterback Connor Cook, who was just 15-31 for 256 yards.

How much of the struggle was first-game jitters? How much was it the teams playing it safe? For as many questions raised by Oregon in their opener, the Spartans didn’t exactly set the world on fire, either.

But both teams are 1-0, ranked in the top-7, and have set the stage for an epic, primetime showdown. Let’s just call it even.

Here’s three things to watch for Saturday night:

1. Can Oregon get momentum early? Last year’s contest was a see-saw affair, from beginning to end. Oregon jumped out fast; Michigan State roared back and took control; Oregon then turned on the jets and put the game away. You can attribute a lot of that to the fact that the teams weren’t familiar with each other, and the first two swings were part of the figuring-out process. This time it will be different. Oregon appeared to have too much speed for Michigan State when they went on their final, fourth quarter run. That, however, was at home, on turf, and in the blazing Oregon heat. If they can do the same thing Saturday night, early in the game, can the Spartans recover? Does panic set in? Oregon’s best chance is not a slug-it-out, down-to-the-wire showdown. Jumping out early, putting doubt in the home team’s mind is the surest way to walk out victorious.

2. Turnovers. Obvious, yes. But winning the turnover battle, especially with a vulnerable defense prone to giving up big plays, will be vital. Vernon Adams turned the ball over last week on a scramble play, and threw a few more 50-50 balls than the coaching staff wanted. He won’t be able to get away with those against a Michigan State defense that has been top-5 nationally. On paper, this matchup appears to be shockingly even – Oregon’s offense is somewhat muted by Michigan State’s defense; Oregon’s defense does better against a traditional offense like Michigan State's than they do against the spread-attack of an Eastern Washington; both teams are well-coached; both have been in big games over the past two seasons. In a game like this – especially for the road team – keeping possession, and forcing a timely turnover oftentimes is the catalyst for victory.

3. Charles Nelson’s impact on special teams. Torrodney Prevot pointed out this week that Michigan State’s struggles last week in defending kickoffs (they gave up returns of 70 & 100 yards) was due, in large part, because of the slower players they use on special teams. The Spartans go a different route than Oregon, using bigger -- albeit slower -- players on their kick coverage team. It can go one of two ways, and Oregon could have a major weapon in this area - Charles Nelson. After sitting out last week due to an unspecified injury, supposedly from early in fall camp, Nelson has declared himself ready for Saturday, and his biggest impact will be in the return game. We saw last year what he could do returning punts, but this week he could be a back-breaker returning kickoffs. Nelson isn’t the fastest candidate Oregon has – that would likely go to Tony Brooks-James, Taj or Ty Griffin, or Kirk Merritt – but he is the best package of speed and shiftiness; and if there’s one thing that bigger guys have trouble with, it's guy who can slither by and run past.

Prediction

It’s safe to say that one team is going to take a playoff hit – but not a big one. That’s the beauty of these early season, non-conference showdowns: a win propels, offering momentum and some wiggle room, but a loss doesn’t destroy your season.

With College Gameday in town, a primetime slot on ABC, and a top-7 matchup, this one should be savored by both fan bases. Neither of these schools are bathed in tradition. Michigan State has lived in the unrelenting shadow of their in-state rivals for decades, and Oregon has only recently built their program into respectability. It’s refreshing to see two teams who built from the ground-up reap the rewards together, and that’s what we have.

This one has a similar feel to last year. Michigan State brings the size and physicality; Oregon brings speed and physicality (an underrated trait for them). For the first time since a trip to The Farm in 2011, Oregon is the underdog; the pundits have the Spartans as a 3-point favorite. And there’s nothing wrong with that: they have the home field advantage, with revenge on their minds. Both teams have a senior quarterback leading – but only one has big-game experience on the FBS level.

One day away, it feels like a classic is brewing. With Oregon’s exemplary special teams play the past couple seasons, and Michigan State’s struggles last week in that area, something tells me one play – ahem, see above – from Charles Nelson makes the difference, and Oregon escapes with one of the biggest wins in program history, 42-38.

Hold on, folks – this one is going to be fun.