Michigan State spent the off-season flipping tires and chasing multiple scout-team huddles. Now can the Spartans keep up with Oregon and erase last year's defeat?
On Fridays this summer, Michigan State football players partook in the Spartan Challenge. After the standard morning weightlifting chores, and in lieu of returning for an afternoon conditioning session, workout groups walked outside for a gauntlet devised by the seniors among them. The particulars of each Spartan Challenge varied, depending on the creativity of the leaders. But there was one constant: They were not pleasant.
One ordeal, devised in part by senior center Jack Allen, began with players separating into teams for a race that involved each member flipping a giant tire 10 yards and back until everyone had done it. Then they picked up hex bars with 45 pounds on each side, running out 30 yards and returning. Then they loaded 75-pound Matrix bags on their backs for a down-and-back that covered 40 yards. For the finale, each team lined up with one 200-pound sandbag. After a player passed the sandbag to a teammate, he sprinted to the end of the line, waiting until the sack made its way down to pass it on again. This continued until the group traversed 50 yards.
Workouts that stress the boundaries of what a human can endure are common to college football programs. But few approached these cruel and unusual grinds with the perfectly crystallized purpose of the Spartans. Most teams do this stuff with an imprecise goal to get better; Michigan State did it to get even.
“Seeing the two teams you lost to playing for the national championship really wasn’t the best thing,” Spartans quarterback Connor Cook says. “So we emphasized that throughout the whole off-season, whether it was one more rep, an extra workout, whatever it is, dedicating that to a loss we had last year when we were so close.”
At last, here comes one of those two teams, and here comes a reckoning. On Saturday, it’s Oregon again, a rematch of 2014’s game that brings a flash flood of anguish over a season-making moment the Spartans let slip from their grasp. Never mind that Big Ten rival Ohio State beat them and proceeded to a national title. No, it’s the second-half swoon in Eugene that haunts Michigan State most of all, when a halftime lead vanished because of poor execution and communication, when the Spartans’ legs and lungs betrayed them, when a program’s defining moment disappeared because it stopped doing all the things that brought it to that precipice.
Like last year, the winner of this game—with all due asterisks and warnings about premature conclusions—leaps ahead in the College Football Playoff race. Michigan State spent an entire off-season, and really even part of bowl preparation, hammering home the idea of finishing what it started. “We've lost three games out of the last 30, and we know the teams we've lost to,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio says. “Our (mission) was to try to reach higher, and to do that, right now, it runs through Oregon. If you look at last year's football team, if we win that football game, you're talking beyond.”
As a brief recap: The Spartans led the Ducks 27–18 well into the third quarter on Sept. 7, 2014, an advantage built on limiting the hosts to 14 rushing yards in the first half. Then Oregon exploded to score the last 28 points of the game. The autopsy results that Michigan State is willing to make public? An accumulation of missed blocks, incorrect lanes and imperfect passes on offense, and a breakdown of defensive cohesion after Oregon trotted out unfamiliar schemes and formations. “There were a lot of communication issues at that time that I don’t think we were ready for,” safety R.J. Williamson says.
Readiness was one operating premise of all the days between the end of last season and this weekend in East Lansing. While a Northwestern or Indiana may run tempo offense out of a spread, they very clearly do not do it with the hyperdrive efficiency of an Oregon or a Baylor. Never had Michigan State’s defense encountered that kind of velocity, or really even a reasonable facsimile of it, before the visit to Eugene last September.
The Spartans felt they were prepared, but the second-half slouch showed they were not prepared enough. Failed execution on a screen pass, a blown coverage leading to a receiver open by tens of yards, a whiff on a surefire sack—these are all symptomatic of the Oregon Effect, in which the body falters first and the mind follows not long after.
To adjust preparation for Oregon in 2015, Michigan State essentially began with Baylor in 2014 and its plan for the Bears in the Cotton Bowl. “When we went against Baylor, our practice plan was much more competitive and built around that scheme they like to run,” Williamson says. “We were ready for that tempo.”
Coaches simulated the challenge by exaggerating it in bowl preparation and well into practices for this fall. Scout team offenses ran plays two to five seconds apart. Sometimes the defense saw multiple offensive huddles sent its way; after one play at one hash mark, the entire defense darted to the other hash, where another 11 offensive players were waiting and ready to snap the ball.
The Spartans had to hustle into their home positions and get their knees bent, with no option but to execute when exhausted. “The coaches have done a great job putting us in the worst possible situation so we will be better prepared for a game,” defensive end Shilique Calhoun says. “Doing things we’re not accustomed to, and also doing things that maybe aren’t even doable in the actual game, so when it comes to game time we’re a lot better prepared than we were last year.”
Live and learn is how Dantonio put it this week. Even the season opener, a 37–24 win over a Western Michigan team that hurries on offense, served as a de facto dress rehearsal.
It will help that Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams, while a definite threat, doesn’t pose quite the conundrum that Marcus Mariota did in 2014. The Heisman Trophy winner was the ultimate plan-destroyer, capable of upending even the most well-conceived strategy. His absence might alleviate the burden a bit—but just a bit—on Cook and the Spartans offense to be absolutely perfect. Preparing for defensive tempo isn’t necessarily a thing. But managing the urgency to keep pace on the scoreboard without going haywire certainly is.
Presumably, the Spartans are better equipped for that, too, having been through it. Just to be sure, Cook said he planned to rev up his film study and add post-practice repetitions if needed. “It’s very key, very crucial to get out to a hot start scoring points,” the Michigan State signal-caller says, “because Oregon likes to score points, too."
Yes, Michigan State knows all about this opponent by now, but familiarity guarantees nothing. If it did, Oregon wouldn’t have just four Pac-12 losses in the last three seasons. The egregiously taxing Spartan Challenges or gimmick defensive drills won’t assure that the Spartans are properly calibrated to keep up, either.
They have waited for this Saturday, and they have waited for this team. But this team has a way of finding its way around you regardless.
About six minutes into the third quarter of the September clash last season, Oregon faced a third-and-11 at its own 41-yard line. Michigan State led by nine, and then-defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi must have had a feeling about what was coming. He dispatched three down linemen, and, on their hips, three linebackers in a two-point stance at the line of scrimmage. At the snap, everyone went.
Except linebacker Darien Harris, standing over the right guard.
The then-junior rocked back on his left leg for a fraction of a moment, then cut behind defensive end Marcus Rush, who crashed down the line. The crisscross action left Harris unblocked. His lane to Mariota was so wide he could have arrived comfortably on an ATV. At full speed, Harris swiped his right arm at Mariota and caught a bit of his waist. It wasn’t enough. The linebacker’s momentum carried him past the Oregon quarterback and to the turf. Mariota stepped forward, danced around another tackler at his ankles and scrambled to the left, where he completed a shovel pass to tailback Royce Freeman for the first down. The play set up a touchdown pass shortly thereafter and, for most, represents the sequence that ignited the Ducks’ offensive onslaught.
The chance to win this one play, the play that turned a game inside-out, was in Michigan State’s hands. And then it wasn’t.
“At the end of the day I expect myself to make that play 10 out of 10 times,” Harris says. “Not nine out of 10.”
The Spartans know what’s coming this Saturday. They set their eyes to it during an off-season of wearying tire flips and chasing multiple scout-team huddles and refining regret into something more potent. Now for the hard part.
Each week, The Walkthrough will talk to two assistant coaches about a key upcoming matchup. For Week 2, it’s Oklahoma against Tennessee and the Sooners’ Samaje Perine facing the Volunteers formidable defensive front, led by end Derek Barnett.
Cale Gundy, Oklahoma assistant head coach/inside receivers coach, who was Perine’s running backs coach in 2014: “He has a perfect build for a running back. He’s got a low center of gravity, very powerful in his legs, it’s hard to bring down with arm tackles. You really need to square him up and probably need some help to take him down. He’s a very physical player and he’s very smart. When you’re playing a team like Tennessee, with the great defense they have, and the strength they have up front and the speed they have with their linebackers, you have to anticipate. There’s no hesitation. You have to be able to run downhill and make quick decisions. Most of those guys probably could’ve gone anywhere they wanted to. The ability they have, the speed and strength, sets them apart.”
John Jancek, Tennessee defensive coordinator: "Those guys (on the defensive line) all have a competitive nature about them. We had a number of guys out this spring with injuries and things of that nature. To have those guys back and to have a little more depth is big. The thing that separates Derek is his mental toughness, the way he pushes himself and the way he conditions. In the run game, obviously we want to be able to get off blocks and maintain gap control and create negative yardage plays. It starts with the ability to tackle Perine, a great back, a big back. And (Joe) Mixon, as well. We’ve got our challenges in the run game with those guys. They’re big up front. You can see they try to play with a physical attitude and mentality. If (Perine) gets going, he’s hard to bring down. He’s got great balance, great vision, he can negotiate in traffic. He’s certainly a load."
• Oregon State at Michigan: A road loss in Jim Harbaugh’s first game was eminently understandable, if not expected. The comedown will be much more painful if the home debut is a disappointment, especially against a Beavers team that passed for just 110 yards against Weber State.
• Houston at Louisville: Tom Herman’s offense debuted by humming for 52 points…against Tennessee Tech. If the Cougars can stay efficient, can they outpace a Louisville team riding the ebbs and swells with freshman QB Lamar Jackson and send the Cardinals to 0–2?
• Minnesota at Colorado State: The Rams destroyed Savannah State in Mike Bobo’s head coaching debut. That doesn’t mean too much. But if they’re a true threat, then the Gophers are a potential Big Ten West contender that could start 0–2.
• Notre Dame at Virginia: Pity the Cavaliers defense. It endured a Week 1 dissection from UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen and now faces the Fighting Irish’s Malik Zaire, who was 19-of-22 passing in the opener against Texas.
• Georgia at Vanderbilt: The loss to Western Kentucky was galling for the Commodores, but at least they managed to play some defense. If Nick Chubb and the Bulldogs raze their hosts, what is left to build on in Nashville?
• Fresno State at Ole Miss: It’s tough to tell much about teams that beat Abilene Christian and Tennessee-Martin, respectively. But the Bulldogs should be a jump in competition for the Rebels, who need the offensive line to remain sharp with Alabama looming next week.
• Iowa at Iowa State: The Cyclones have won three of the last four battles for the Cy-Hawk Trophy, but all of those meetings have been decided by six points or less. You could argue Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz needs this win more for good Hawkeye State P.R. Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads just needs any wins, period.
• Oklahoma at Tennessee: Samaje Perine ran for 33 yards against Akron, which is fine when Baker Mayfield is throwing for 388. But do the Sooners want to rely on the air on the road? A win could accelerate the growth of Butch Jones’ program into a contender—the Volunteers haven’t beaten a ranked team since Oct. 19, 2013.
• Arizona at Nevada: Scooby Wright (knee surgery) is out, which puts an extra onus on QB Anu Solomon and the Wildcats’ offense to produce. The Wolf Pack have extra urgency to grab a win and firmly establish an upward trajectory for Brian Polian’s regime.
• Kentucky at South Carolina: The Wildcats barely scraped by Louisiana-Lafayette at home in Week 1, which isn’t terribly auspicious for Mark Stoops’ program. The Gamecocks could win another one and leave us wondering how good they might be.
• Oregon at Michigan State: Oh, nothing, just an intersectional game that could define the College Football Playoff fortunes of both sides.
• LSU at Mississippi State: The Tigers remain a bit of a mystery after a storm-cancelled opener. But that also means they lost their warm-up act to work out the kinks before a trip to Starkville and then a visit from Auburn in Weeks 2 and 3.
• Boise State at BYU: Life after Taysom Hill starts in earnest for the Cougars. The irony is that Hill’s injury makes this a more winnable game now for Boise State, but in the context of reaching a New Year’s Six bowl, the Broncos might have preferred that he play.
I knew right from the beginning/That you would end up winnin’/I knew right from the start/You’d put an arrow through my heart. Does any ’80s rock rager capture the wild swing of emotion between Week 1 expectations and Week 2 reality better than Ratt’s “Round And Round”?
If you’re already miserable and checking the 2016 schedule after one game, remember: What goes around comes around. Ratt said so.