No. 5 Spartans take center stage with matchup against Oregon
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Michigan State, the spotlight is now yours.
The Spartans spent the offseason somewhat under the radar despite high expectations for 2015. That's what happens when one conference rival is coming off a national title and another hires Jim Harbaugh.
But this weekend is all about Michigan State. The fifth-ranked Spartans host seventh-ranked Oregon on Saturday night in what figures to be one of the biggest nonconference matchups of college football's regular season.
''Being able to play on this kind of stage against this kind of opponent, prime-time, under the lights,'' quarterback Connor Cook said. ''Just a great atmosphere, a great opportunity for me.''
For Cook and the Spartans, this is a chance to avenge one of their two defeats from a season ago. Michigan State lost to Oregon and Ohio State - the two national title game participants, as it turned out - and went undefeated otherwise.
Cook threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns against the Ducks, but he was also intercepted twice in Oregon's 46-27 win. Quarterback Marcus Mariota went on to win the Heisman Trophy for Oregon, but he's in the NFL now, and Cook has a chance to face the Ducks again.
''I think our quarterback situation may be as good as there is in the country,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
Top-ranked Ohio State, the defending national champion, opened its season with a win at Virginia Tech on Monday night, but it may be a while before the Buckeyes play another marquee game. Harbaugh lost his debut as Michigan's coach, and even his home opener this weekend against Oregon State feels like a bit of an undercard with the Spartans (1-0) hosting the Ducks (1-0) later Saturday.
ESPN College GameDay will be in East Lansing, and in a sport that's grown somewhat fond of neutral-site games, this is the latter half of a home-and-home series in which both teams have a chance to host.
''Spartan Stadium, from me to you, I could be screaming at you and you can't hear me, so it's loud,'' Dantonio said at his weekly news conference Tuesday. ''Those are great opportunities to affect a no-huddle offense.''
Oregon's up-tempo system looked just fine against Michigan State's vaunted defense last year, and this is the first major test for the Spartans since defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi left to take the head coaching job at Pittsburgh. Michigan State won its opener at Western Michigan 37-24.
If the Spartans beat Oregon, they won't be guaranteed a spot in the four-team playoff for the national title - and a loss won't necessarily eliminate them. Last season, Michigan State remained in the discussion until a second loss, at home to Ohio State, forced the Spartans to focus on other goals.
''Our players need to understand this is the second game of the season,'' Dantonio said. ''Last year, I think it was the second game of the season, if I remember, and we lost it. All of a sudden, we're 8-1, I think. We're 8-1 playing Ohio State and all the buzz was back.''
If Michigan State wins this rematch against Oregon, the buzz should be around for a while - and that matchup with the Buckeyes later in the season will take on even greater significance.
''We've lost three games out of the last 30, and we know the teams we've lost to,'' Dantonio said. ''Our M.O. was to try to reach higher, and to do that, right now, it runs through Oregon. I also think that if you look at last year's football team, if we win that football game, you're talking beyond, and you just keep trying to move your program forward.''