EUGENE, Ore. — Oregon is known for its nimble spread offense, while Michigan State is known for its stout 3-4 defense.
But it’s not as simple as offense versus defense between the No. 3 Ducks and the No. 7 Spartans, who meet Saturday afternoon in Eugene. Both teams have become known as innovators on opposite sides of the ball.
For Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, there’s truth in the old cliche: Defense wins championships. It certainly worked last season when the Big Ten-champion Spartans defeated Stanford 24-20 in the Rose Bowl.
“There’s not a lot of people who have played our defense in the past. I think people are moving toward it and doing some of the things that we’ve done, and we’ve had tremendous success with our defense in the last three, four, really the last four years,” he said. “That trend needs to continue for us to be successful. It’s my belief you win championships with great defenses.”
The Spartans, who defeated Jacksonville State 45-7 in their opener, had the second-ranked total defense in the nation last year, allowing opponents an average of just over 252 yards per game.
Oregon has been perfecting its no-huddle spread since former coach Chip Kelly began tinkering with it in 2007 as offensive coordinator. The Ducks have found the perfect leader in dual-threat quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is as adept on his feet as he is with his arm.
Mariota threw for three touchdowns and ran for another in Oregon’s season-opening 62-13 victory over South Dakota.
“You look at Oregon, certainly you see what they’ve done offensively, and they are different from other spread teams. I think they’ve had so much success, a lot of people are taking some of the things and imitating them or not copying but using their concepts and trying to adapt it into their offenses,” Dantonio said.
Last season the Ducks lost to the one team in the Pac-12 that most resembles the Spartans, Stanford. The Spartans can certainly take inspiration Saturday from their victory over the Cardinal in Pasadena.
The home team has won in each of the four previous meetings between Oregon and Michigan State, evening the series at 2-2. The Spartans won the most recent game 27-20 in 1999 in East Lansing. Oregon won the 1998 season opener 48-14 on Akili Smith’s four first-half touchdown passes.
Mariota, the junior Heisman, hopeful has thrown at least one touchdown in each of the 27 games he’s played at Oregon. He has passed for 66 total touchdowns, rushed for 15 and caught one for the most career TDs in school history. Mariota needs one more touchdown pass to surpass Darron Thomas for the top spot on Oregon’s career list.
The Ducks run the ball well, too. Junior Byron Marshall led a trio of Oregon running backs that accounted for 412 yards of total offense and four touchdowns in the opener against South Dakota. Marshall revealed a hybrid role, leading the team with eight catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Oregon at times played all three, with Marshall at slot, and sophomore Thomas Tyner and freshman Royce Freeman at running back.
Although much is made about the Spartans’ defense, quarterback Connor Cook solidified his role as the starter last season and got off to a fast start this year against Jacksonville State, throwing for 285 yards and three touchdowns before sitting in the second half.