Now No. 8 Spartans can focus on Oregon
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) For all that Michigan State's defense has proven over the last year or so, this may be the most compelling test yet.
After routing Jacksonville State to open the season Friday night, the eighth-ranked Spartans are heading west to face No. 3 Oregon. The Ducks' dynamic, fast-paced offense should pose quite a challenge for Michigan State, but the defending Big Ten champions are an upbeat bunch after Friday's 45-7 victory.
''You want to have high confidence coming out of Week 1,'' quarterback Connor Cook said. ''Playing the way we did, making the plays we made, especially with the defense playing the way they played too, is obviously a big confidence booster for all of us, going into a big-time game in a big-time environment against a big-time opponent.''
There's no reason for Michigan State (1-0) to be intimidated by the significance of this next game. This is a team that went unbeaten in the Big Ten last season and beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
But Oregon's offense, and the mystique surrounding it, makes this an unusually fascinating contest. Even after losing coach Chip Kelly to the NFL, the Ducks averaged 45 points per game last season. Quarterback Marcus Mariota threw for 31 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Michigan State, meanwhile, reached the top of the Big Ten behind a bruising defense that stuffed the run and made consistent passing difficult. The Spartans lost standouts Max Bullough and Darqueze Dennard from that defense, but they still looked imposing in Friday's opener against the overmatched Gamecocks of the Football Championship Subdivision.
Jacksonville State's offense was fairly well regarded, and there was talk that this would be a decent tuneup for Oregon's pace. The Gamecocks did manage a touchdown - the first allowed by Michigan State at home since Oct. 12.
''The one series that they scored on, they gassed us,'' Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. ''We have to get our guys out quicker when we see they are gassed. We had one guy get gassed on three straight plays when he was at the point of attack. . Otherwise, I thought we were effective out there and got people on and off the field.''
Defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun is one of the top players in the Big Ten, and linebacker Taiwan Jones received solid reviews in the opener with Bullough gone. It remains to be seen whether Michigan State's defense can reach the level of last year's unit, but this next game will surely be a good indicator of the Spartans' progress.
Whoever wins will probably be a very early favorite to reach college football's new four-team playoff - and perhaps both teams will be in the hunt for a while. That alone underscores how far Michigan State has come since the first game of last season, when the Spartans weren't sure who their top quarterback was and struggled to move the ball.
Against Jacksonville State, Cook completed his first nine passes, the score was 38-0 at halftime, and the defense held the Gamecocks to 22 yards rushing.
With the Jacksonville State game up first, players and coaches weren't all that interested in talking about Oregon before the season, but now the focus will be on this showdown with the Pac-12 powerhouse.
''We're ranked in the top 10 and we're going against a team that's ranked in the top 10,'' running back Nick Hill said. ''I think that starting fast and scoring a lot of points offensively is very comforting to the players and the coaches.''