Sunday September 7th, 2014

It was the game that everyone had circled all offseason, and it certainly lived up to the hype. Michigan State dealt Oregon a body blow, but the Ducks struck back to score 28 unanswered points and beat the Spartans 46-27 in Autzen Stadium.

There’s a scene in The Avengers in which the superheroes aren’t getting along. They scuffle a bit, and Thor hits Captain America’s shield with his hammer. The result is staggering. That’s what this game felt like. Sure, Oregon pulled away. But that was one heck of a fight. Here are three thoughts from Saturday night’s clash:

1. Marcus Mariota is the Heisman frontrunner

While Michigan State’s Connor Cook was the passer dazzling in the first half, Mariota came through when the Ducks needed him most. Oregon’s redshirt junior seemed tentative at times early, but he took the training wheels off midway through the third quarter and started to play like a Heisman Trophy favorite. He finished 17-of-28 for 318 passing yards with three touchdowns. He added nine carries for 42 yards on the ground.

With Mariota scrambling and making throws, the Michigan State defense was left reeling. Oregon took full advantage. That seemed to get the Ducks’ defense going, too, with All-America-caliber corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu leading the charge. His leaping fourth-quarter interception squashed any chance of a Spartans’ comeback.

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2. The Big Ten’s respectability takes a hit

It wasn’t a good day for the Big Ten. Iowa required a late rally to beat Ball State; Nebraska needed a remarkable play from running back Ameer Abdullah to escape McNeese State; and Purdue and Northwestern lost to MAC opponents (Central Michigan and Northern Illinois). The Spartans had a chance to change the national perception of the Big Ten with a strong showing in the Northwest. They couldn't make it happen.

Michigan State led 24-18 at the break, but Oregon’s speed and execution proved to be too much. Following Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller’s injury in the preseason and Wisconsin’s loss to LSU in Week 1, the league was in desperate need of a boost. A 19-point loss from its premier team doesn’t help matters.

At least one of the major conferences will be left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff field. As of now, the Big Ten can’t feel great about its chances.

3. Oregon challenged Michigan State’s defense with big plays

Oregon is tough to defend largely because of its propensity for big plays. Even if an opponent is defending well, the Ducks’ attack keeps coming, like someone hammering into a block of ice. There’s a chip here. A chip there. Then a giant chunk breaks off. That’s what happened to Michigan State in the second half.

In a span of roughly five minutes, Oregon scored three touchdowns: Mariota’s 24-yard pass to Devon Allen, Mariota’s 37-yard strike to Keanon Lowe and Royce Freeman’s 38-yard run.

Michigan State’s defense deserves its vaunted reputation. But once the floodgates open and the Ducks start clicking, it’s hard to stop the water from rushing in.

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