The Oregon Ducks head into East Lansing’s Spartan Stadium for college football’s game of the week on Saturday night — one that is likely to carry significant implications for a number of teams vying for spots in the College Football Playoff.
Just more than a year ago, Oregon steamrolled the Spartans, 46-27, on the back of a 28-3 error-free second half; a scoring onslaught that included four unanswered touchdowns. The win triggered the Ducks to leapfrog Alabama in the polls while the Spartans fell out of the top 10.
Mark Dantonio’s team, which allowed only 88.5 rushing yards per game last season, was gassed to the tune of 173 yards; and considering Oregon’s propensity to sprint through the teeth of opposing defenses with its rapid-fire, relentless offensive concoction, that wasn’t a particularly haphazard effort by Michigan State.
It wasn’t enough.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the key to winning this year’s showdown can be found in last year’s matchup: Michigan State will win if they can control Oregon’s ground game.
“You have to run the ball,” Helfrich said about the upcoming matchup. “You have to stay balanced.”
Although the Ducks have a new man under center, the ball-carrying bellwether Royce Freeman is back, and last week the sophomore put on a clinic against Eastern Washington. Freeman, whose nickname is “Rolls Royce,” racked up 180 yards on the ground on a blistering 8.6 yards per carry, and three touchdowns. The 5-foot-11, 230-pound Imperial native helped the Ducks to 18 rushes of 10 yards or more in the season opener, the most by any FBS team, according to ESPN. A season ago, he shattered the Pacific 12’s freshman rushing record with 1,365 yards on the ground and led the conference with 18 rushing touchdowns.
Michigan State was projected to have the 16th-best defense this season, but is currently ranked 14th in defensive efficiency—which takes into account strength of schedule, disregards “garbage time,” and assesses the unit on a per-play basis. In the team’s season opener against Western Michigan, the Spartans gave up just 18 yards on the ground.
Since 2012, the Spartans are 4-5 when they give up more 150 yards on the ground; last season, the team was 1-2 when opponents crossed the threshold. Oregon has only amassed less than 150 yards on the ground four times in that same stretch of time, going 1-3 with one of those losses coming in last year’s national championship game.
If it seems like a tall order—and it most certainly is—consider that the Spartans have had success matching up against prolific rushing attacks before.
Last season, the team had little problem disposing of Nebraska Cornhuskers’ running back Ameer Abdullah in their marquee matchup, holding the Doak Walker Award finalist to 1.9 yards per carry.
None of this is to say that Michigan State doesn’t have a competent offense — Football Outsiders ranked the team’s offensive line as the top group in the country — or that offensive execution doesn’t matter in this matchup. However, if the Spartans hope to earn a résumé-bolstering win Saturday they’ll need to do something few have been able to in recent years: contain Oregon’s rushing attack.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.