When Michigan State lost at Oregon a year ago, it was filed away as one of a handful of disappointing results on a disastrous day for the Big Ten. The Spartans didn’t rebound to make the College Football Playoff, but they did win at least 11 games for the fourth time in the last five years, capped by a one-point victory over Big 12 co-champion Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. It was, by all accounts, a good season for Michigan State. Yet it also left it on the outside looking in, a rung below the fellow Big Ten program, Ohio State, that went on to win the national championship. Ironically, the Buckeyes suffered an even worse loss on the same day Michigan State fell to the Ducks: a 35–21 defeat in Columbus to unranked Virginia Tech. In the end, though, a November showdown between the two East Division rivals in East Lansing elevated Ohio State over Michigan State in the playoff pecking order.
The path the Buckeyes took to last year’s title game is instructive because it can help one attempt to understand the importance of a seemingly massive nonconference result like No. 5 Michigan State’s 31–28 win over No. 7 Oregon on Saturday. This was billed as a high-profile nonconference tilt between two teams ranked in the top 10 of the polls, an intriguing, contrast-of-styles clash pitting the high-octane Ducks and the defense-oriented Spartans. More than that, though, the game was framed as one of the first truly meaningful meetings on the front line of the playoff résumé war. Which team would enter conference play with one of the best out-of-conference wins in the country, a trump card that could potentially tip the balance in the selection committee war room this December? That’s what was at stake.
Michigan State seized the opportunity by slowing down Oregon’s high-powered offense and wearing down the Ducks on the ground. It was reasonable to question whether the Spartans’ pass defense had slipped after they yielded 365 yards and two touchdowns through the air in a win at MAC foe Western Michigan last week. The Ducks offered a far more imposing challenge for a secondary that lost an all-conference safety (Kurtis Drummond) and a cornerback taken in the first round of this year’s draft (Trae Waynes) from a team that ranked fifth nationally in Football Outsiders’ Defensive S&P+ Ratings on passing downs. Saturday’s effort didn’t wipe away the questions surrounding that unit. But while the Spartans allowed Vernon Adams to pass for 309 yards, they pressured the Eastern Washington transfer into a number of ill-advised throws, picked him off twice and limited him to a 56.4 completion percentage. Adams also had difficulty escaping the pocket; he totaled only six yards on 14 carries.
We got a glimpse of Adams’s playmaking flair late in the second quarter, when he evaded pressure in the pocket, scurried toward the sideline and chucked a pass with his left hand while being tackled. But on the very next play, he lofted a pass into coverage for an interception.
Unfortunately for the Ducks, they couldn’t lean on their ground game to ease the burden on Adams, who only began practicing with his new team about a month ago and was playing his first road game against a program whose rise to prominence was driven in no small part by its ability to harass opposing quarterbacks. Michigan State plugged running holes and repeatedly surged into the backfield. One notable sequence involved a fourth-and-goal play in which sophomore tackle Malik McDowell drove Oregon center Matt Hegarty a few yards behind the line of scrimmage. Stud Ducks tailback Royce Freeman finished with 92 yards, but his 3.8 yards-per-carry average registered well below his mark in this matchup last season (6.8), as well as his number (8.6) against the Eagles a week ago. Taken together, Oregon managed only 2.9 yards per carry against Sparty after recording 5.5 over 15 games in 2014-15.
Yet whereas the Ducks spent much of the night running into green uniforms at the line of scrimmage, Michigan State provided more evidence that it has found a suitable replacement for all-conference running back Jeremy Langford. The Spartans’ tandem of freshmen tailbacks LJ Scott and Madre London combined for 179 yards on 6.2 yards per carry. Scott was particularly impressive. A week after gashing Western Michigan for 77 yards on nearly six YPC, the Hubbard, Ohio, native churned out 76 yards on 6.9 YPC, including a 38-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter to put the Spartans up 10. Scott’s run felt like a decisive blow, but Oregon responded a few minutes later with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Byron Marshall. A three-and-out from Michigan State on its next possession put the Ducks in position to take the lead. But after catching a break on an Adams overthrow to Marshall on second down, Michigan State pummeled Adams for a loss of 10 yards, and his pass to Bralon Addison on the next play fell incomplete.
That critical defensive stand followed a fourth-and-one stuff on an Adams run earlier in the fourth quarter.
“Neutralize them? We just kept playing,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said afterward, according to MLive.com. “Vernon Adams is everything they say. He can really move around (and) they’ve got really great receivers that made clutch plays down there, but our guys kept playing. I’m very, very proud of our football team and how they responded. The energy on the sideline. Awesome crowd, awesome crowd. Come to Michigan State.”
What Ohio State showed last year is that an early nonconference result, in itself, will not cripple or validate one’s playoff candidacy, even in a conference featuring no other ostensible contenders. After the Virginia Tech loss, the Buckeyes ripped off nine consecutive wins in Big Ten play, lost their starting quarterback to injury (J.T. Barrett) and were ultimately slotted into the field anyway at the expense of two Big 12 squads. That run included a crucial win at Michigan State and an evisceration of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. To get where it wants to be in January, Michigan State likely will need to take a similar path, right down to winning in Columbus on Nov. 21 and in a possible matchup with the Badgers in the league title game. Even if the Spartans had failed to defend their home turf on Saturday, any slip-ups in conference play may have been even more costly.
Still, this win puts Michigan State on the short list of playoff contenders entering a league slate with few challenges outside of the aforementioned meeting with Ohio State. The Spartans will have to face Michigan and Nebraska on the road, but there’s little reason to believe the formula they used to vanquish one of the most explosive offense outfits in the country on Saturday—shut down the run, use London and Scott to extend drives, get timely throws from Connor Cook—won’t work against Big Ten opponents. “In my mind, this is a steppingstone game,” Dantonio said. “It pays dividends at the end of the season.” Dantonio’s right: A tentpole nonconference win will help Michigan State if it’s lurking on the playoff cutline at the end of the season. But the Spartans have a lot of work to do between now and then.