September 02, 2014

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio is doing his best to deflect the importance of Saturday's showdown with No. 3 Oregon as it relates to the first College Football Playoff that is still an entire season down the road.

Sure, if his seventh-ranked Spartans were to fall in Eugene in the school's first regular-season top-10 matchup in more than 47 years, there's ample time to make up ground and get back into the national title picture.

At the same time, a victory doesn't ensure anything if they were to falter in any of their future contests.

"This is an opportunity early in the season to see where we're at as a program," said Dantonio, who guided Michigan State to its first outright Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory since the 1987 season. "Win or lose, we still have a lot of football games ahead of us, and we have to understand that that's every bit as important as this one single game."

It's a pretty big one, though.

Oregon features Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota, who bypassed the NFL to return for his redshirt junior season. He was 14 of 20 for 267 yards and three touchdowns while adding another score on the ground in last Saturday's 62-13 rout of FCS-level South Dakota before sitting in the second half.

Mariota passed former Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington for the most total TDs in school history, but he knows he'll have a tough test in trying to solve a Michigan State defense that still ranks as one of the nation's best despite losing top contributors from last season.

''We are very excited. It poses a good challenge for us. It poses a good challenge for the entire team,'' Mariota said. ''They're coming in as one of the best defenses in the country and any offense would love to face that challenge. It helps you see where you stack up.''

The Ducks have national title hopes as well, and they looked every bit like a contender in racking up 673 yards against the Coyotes. Seventy-five of those, along with two touchdowns, came from highly touted freshman running back Royce Freeman.

Bryon Marshall added 90 yards rushing, but he also was used as a wide receiver in some sets and caught eight passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns.

Michigan State lost six starters from last year's defense, but it still has standout defensive end Shilique Calhoun and linebacker Taiwan Jones to help counter the Oregon attack. Calhoun was named a preseason All-American while Jones is on the watch list for the Butkus Award.

"They're going to play hard-nosed football," Ducks lineman Jake Fisher, an Outland Trophy nominee and Michigan native, told the team's official website. "They're going to try to contain, try to force things inside for their linebackers. They're going to play their game and they're very disciplined, so they're going to do exactly that."

Though the Spartans' defense receives plenty of attention, quarterback Connor Cook proved in Friday's 45-7 season-opening win over Jacksonville State that Michigan State has some weapons on offense, too.

Cook finished 12 of 13 for 285 yards and three touchdowns before sitting in the second half, fighting through an early hard hit to his left leg that left him briefly hobbled.

Two of those scoring passes went to Tony Lippett, who finished with 167 yards on four catches. Running back Nick Hill scored twice, and he believes Michigan State has the talent to win this tough road contest despite entering as nearly a two-touchdown underdog.

The Spartans beat No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and No. 5 Stanford in the Rose Bowl as a top-10 team, but they haven't been involved in a top-10 regular season showdown since No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State played to a 10-10 tie Nov. 19, 1966.

"We're ranked in the top 10 and we're going against a team that's ranked in the top 10,'' Hill said. ''Our confidence is very high. I think that starting fast and big and scoring a lot of points offensively (in the opener) is very comforting to the players and the coaches."

These schools haven't met since Michigan State beat visiting Oregon 27-20 on Sept. 2, 1999, in East Lansing. The Ducks won 48-14 in Eugene the previous year.

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