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Can the Spartans Face Down the Ducks’ Running Game?

Wednesday, September 03, 2014


They are Spartans: Photo Credit SvododaIT, cc

Despite having a Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback, there sure seems to be a lot of talk about the running backs at Oregon.

With so much attention being direction at this three-headed monster - some veteran observers are pondering the potential for a something truly remarkable - it’s likely Thomas Tyner, Byron Marshall and newcomer Royce Freeman will be heavily featured throughout the season.

Just don’t expect Michigan State to flinch.

You may have heard - the Spartans are next up for the Ducks. But what you might not have heard or known is that since 2011, there might be no one better at stopping the run. Michigan State allowed just a shade over 100 yards on the ground in 2011, dipped to 98.6 in 2012 and then all the way down to 86.6 last year.

In all three seasons, the Spartans have ranked in the Top 10 nationally in run defense.

Someone far smarter than me has already broken down what Spartans coach Mark Dantonio and longtime collaborator/defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi have cooked up together, and it’s a tremendous read, a primer for Saturday at Autzen. 

Due to the Big Ten’s physical reputation, and because of Michigan State’s lofty status within the conference, the comparison to Stanford, which has defeated Oregon in each of the last two seasons largely by dominating the line of scrimmage, is apt. 

Heck, Dantonio even brought it up Tuesday during a conference call with the media.

“I don't know if it's a blueprint, but not too many people have beaten Oregon, so you could say that,” he said.

We Have a 'Stanford Problem'

Of course, Ducks coach Mark Helfrich isn’t nearly as keen on the reference. A couple of weeks ago, he was asked if his program had “a Stanford problem,” and while he laughed, his reaction was nevertheless nervous and telling.

“Last year we had a Stanford and an Arizona problem (Oregon’s two losses), and Stanford had a Utah problem,” he said. “Whenever we lose a game, it’s the end of the world. When someone else loses, someone didn’t have a good week that week.

The reality is somewhere in between. We lost to a team that methodically out-executed us - we have to focus on how that happened from our end and get better.”

Naturally, he’s right.

OK, so the Ducks have an execution problem against Stanford. And fans are concerned there might be an execution problem against Michigan State as well.

“Big-play ability is what you see with Oregon,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “You have to be able to take that away from them.”

The Spartans’ salty defense seems to have sustained its sting. In last week’s season opener, Michigan State pounded Jacksonville State, 45-7, a result that likely registered a collective yawn in states other than Michigan and Oregon.

But in the latest FCS Coaches Poll, Jacksonville State is ranked ninth. The Gamecocks were predicted in the off-season to win the Ohio Valley Conference, and running back DeMarcus James, who rambled for 1,477 yards and 29 touchdowns last season, was named the preseason offensive player of the year.

Jacksonville State finished with 22 yards on the ground on 25 attempts. James carried three times for 17 yards as the Spartans scored on six of their seven first-half possessions, taking a 38-point lead into halftime.

That’s impressive, regardless of foe. 

Obviously, the Ducks are better than the Gamecocks, probably better than the Spartans, too.

But Oregon, especially its running backs, will earn everything Saturday at Autzen Stadium against a defense that remains stout.

Homepage Photo Credit: SvobodaIT via Compfight cc


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