No. 8 Michigan State at No. 3 Oregon
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Radio: KBND 1110-AM
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Pat Narduzzi will have enough to worry about when Michigan State takes on Oregon this weekend, so the Spartans’ talkative defensive coordinator dismissed the idea that jet lag or the heat might play a significant role in the outcome.
“You can say food’s a factor, the airplane’s a factor. We can name all kinds of factors, if you let it be a factor,” Narduzzi said. “The factor is that offense. That’s what we’re looking at, so that’s the only factor we care about.”
Narduzzi has helped turn Michigan State into one of the nation’s top defensive teams over the last few years, but Saturday’s game at No. 3 Oregon might be his biggest test yet. The matchup between the seventh-ranked Spartans and the high-scoring Ducks is perhaps the most intriguing nonconference game on this year’s college football schedule — and Oregon’s quick-paced offense will put plenty of pressure on Narduzzi’s talented unit.
“They’re a lot faster than we are, if you watch the tape,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll have our hands full.”
Narduzzi may have been posturing a bit with that comment. There is no reason to sell Michigan State short after the Spartans finished second in the nation in total defense last season. Michigan State won the Big Ten and then beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
In one November victory over rival Michigan, the Spartans held the Wolverines to minus-48 yards rushing. In the Big Ten title game against Ohio State, the Buckeyes were actually able to run the ball effectively, but they completed only eight passes against Michigan State’s stingy secondary.
“They have some of the best defensive backs in the country. They really trust those guys outside and they like to bring pressure,” Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “We’ll have to be able to communicate up front and make sure we’re good in our protections and try and take our shots.”
Oregon averaged 45 points per game last season, but the Ducks did lose twice, including against Stanford when they allowed three sacks and did not score until the fourth quarter. Now it is Michigan State — with defensive standouts lineman Shilique Calhoun and safety Kurtis Drummond — that will try to slow Mariota’s team.
“I think Coach Narduzzi does an awesome job of getting them prepared. Everybody that plays them knows what they’re going to run, they just run it really well,” Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. “They’ve seen about everything. There’s some good coordinators out there and people try and trick them and misdirection them and usually they have an adjustment for almost everything. They also do a really good job of — if they get beat with something once, they’re not going to get beat again.”
Narduzzi’s view of Oregon is similar. It’s not that the Ducks overwhelm opponents with all sorts of different plays, it’s that they can execute similar plays in different ways, depending on what the defense does — and without needing much time between snaps.
“They’re going to repeat plays, we hope. We hope they don’t have an arsenal of a hundred different plays that they can run Saturday,” Narduzzi said Wednesday. “They’re going to repeat plays, but I would say they’re similar to us. They like to do things and do them well, and they definitely specialize in what they do.”
Michigan State opened the season with an easy victory over Jacksonville State — another team that tries to push the pace offensively. Narduzzi estimates that Oregon is about four seconds per play faster than Jacksonville State. Throw in a potentially hot day in Eugene, and this will be quite a challenge for the Spartans.
It is one the Michigan State players are looking forward to — if this week’s preparation is any indication.
“I may have seen a little extra pep to them, to be honest with you. We treat them the same. We try to hit them in the head with a baseball bat if we have to, to get them going,” Narduzzi joked. “But I did see a little extra yesterday. We didn’t have to bring the bats out.”