The first two weeks of the Oregon Ducks 2014 football season is like a concert. You buy the tickets for the headliner, but whether you like it or not, you have to sit through a longer-than-necessary set of an artist you've never heard of and most likely will never hear again.
Yes, we were all excited for the return of college football last weekend. But let's be honest. After the first half, did anyone really want to watch the rest of the game? South Dakota was the opening act. Everyone watches out of respect and maybe a little bit of curiosity, but in all actuality are just waiting for the headliner. In this case, the headliner is the Michigan State Spartans.
Saturday's matchup between No. 3 Oregon and No. 7 Michigan State could arguably go down as the biggest contest in the history of Autzen Stadium.
The Spartans are coming off a 45-7 win over Jacksonville State to kick off the season, putting up 565 yards of total offense. While it's Michigan State's defense that have been garnering most of the attention, the Spartans' offense has some weapons that can't be overlooked.
Under center for the Spartans is Connor Cook, a junior from Hinckley, Ohio. In his first year as quarterback in 2013, Cook threw for 2,755 yards while throwing 22 touchdowns and six interceptions, eventually leading Michigan State to a 24-20 Rose Bowl win over Stanford, earning the game's Offensive MVP award as he threw 304 yards and three touchdowns. Cook has a career record of 14-1, with his lone loss coming on the road last year against Notre Dame in a 17-13 loss. Cook's 11 straight wins since the Notre Dame loss are the most since Al Dorrow won 15 straight games during the 1950 and 1951 seasons.
Last week against Jacksonville State, Cook took a nasty shot while throwing a 64-yard touchdown pass and had to be carried off the field. Cook later said he thought it was a "pretty bad cheap shot" and a "really dirty hit." Amazingly enough, Cook didn't miss a play, showing his toughness that'll make him tough to slow down on Saturday.
Senior Jeremy Langford leads Michigan State's rushing attack. The 6-foot-4, 208-pound tailback also had an injury scare in the opening game, leaving with a leg injury in the first half before limping off again in the second quarter. Langford, who carried the ball 13 times for 57 yards, said he would be 100 percent this week.
What, you expected him to say he felt like he'd only be at 75 percent for one of the biggest games of the year?
Last season, Langford was a workhorse for the Spartans, carrying the ball 292 times for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. Entering this year, Langford found himself on watch lists for the Maxwell Award and Doak Walker Award. His 18 touchdowns led the Big 10 and set a school record by rushing for over 100 yards in eight straight games.
Nick Hill is a reliable backup to Langford with some experience. Last season, Hill played in 12 games, rushing for 344 yards and a touchdown. Against Jacksonville State, Hill carried the ball 11 times for 42 yards and two touchdowns, proving himself to be a solid No. 2 guy behind Langford. Hill is also Michigan State's active career leader with 2,450 all-purpose yards.
Michigan State is returning a number of starters from last season, losing only fifth-year senior Bennie Fowler. Senior Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings Jr. are both coming off career years. Lippett caught 44 passes for 613 yards and two touchdowns, while Kings hauled in 43 passes for 513 yards and three touchdowns.
Lippett is coming off a huge opening game as he caught four passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns, already matching his touchdown total from all of the 2013 season. His two touchdown receptions accounted for 135 of his 167 receiving yards in the game. While Michigan State will certainly be looking towards Langford to lead the offensive attack, Lippett is probably the Spartans' most dangerous weapon through the air.
Michigan State is returning 86 percent of its receptions and 79 percent of its receiving yards this season. Both of those figures rank in the top 10 in the nation.
Who to Watch For
All eyes will be on how Oregon's defense responds to Jeremy Langford and the Michigan State rushing attack. With a physical back in their arsenal, expect the Spartans to turn to Langford early and often. We've already seen the comparisons to Stanford's rushing game that has shown the nation how to take down Oregon, and Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio addressed those comparisons.
Dantonio on how Stanford beat UO: "I don't know if it's a blueprint but not too many people have beaten Oregon, so you could say that."— Andrew Greif (@AndrewGreif) September 2, 2014
The strategy of attacking the Ducks with the run is about the closest thing to a blueprint to beating Oregon that we've seen. Last season, the Ducks lost two games. In both games, they had no answer when it came to stopping the run. In Stanford's 26-20 win over Oregon, Tyler Gaffney carried the ball 45 times for 157 yards and a touchdown. When Arizona beat the Ducks down to a pulp in the desert, Ka'Deem Carey ran the ball 48 times for 206 yards and four touchdowns.
If Langford gets going for the Spartans, it could be a frustrating afternoon at Autzen Stadium for the Ducks.
Another X-factor is going to be who can handle the heat, literally. In case you haven't seen the weather forecast for Saturday, it's going to be a scorcher in Eugene.
Um, has anyone looked at Saturday's forecast recently? pic.twitter.com/alzYPRJz76— Will Rubin (@_WillRubin) September 3, 2014
Dehydration is going to be a very real risk that will be in play for both sides. About the only thing you can do to get ready for it is move your practice indoors and crank up the thermostat. It'll be interesting to see how both teams handle the high temperatures.
Ultimately, I think this game will come down to Michigan State's rushing game. Yes, the Spartans are known for their elite defense, but Oregon has this guy named Marcus Mariota, you might've heard of him. He's decent at football. If Langford can handle the high temperatures and repeat his best performance from 2013 (32 carries for 151 yards and three touchdowns versus Nebraska), I think the Spartans become the first non-conference opponent to win in Autzen Stadium since Boise State did it in 2008.